This 2011 image of Cornell University’s library has me thinking back to 5th grade, when I read books other than the non-fiction sort. I was reading Babysitter’s Club, Judy Blume, and Choose your own mysteries when I was in Ms. Beverly K Littau’s class. She was the first teacher who demonstrated that she understood the concept of biophilia. She created this heavenly little corner for us to read in as a reward. For an entire school day one student could do their work under the canopy of large palm leaves with big ol’ pillows and a bean bag. Why did that work? Why do students who spend more time in nature do better on tests? Why do we heal faster when we can look out windows? In 1984, E.O. Wilson described Biophilia as the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes, but centuries before that we were using this innate knowledge to our advantage to heal ourselves. Here is my very elevator talk on some of the theoretical framework linking contact with nature and wellbeing.
Voluntary attention is an ancient response to external alerts, fuelled by adrenalin and necessary survival in a once wild world. When we see a tree in a desert, “WHEW”, there’s water and food and shelter there! And we rest. Physiologically, Mentally. Psychologically. Even before we finally get there. These fight or flight responses are (only a little) less useful today, so we need directed attention to inhibit our automatic response. Have YOU ever slugged a spook in a haunted maze or ducked when a car door slammed or ran like a deer when a fight breaks out near you? I have. Too much of this directed attention leads to fatigue that can cause us to feel aggressive, intolerant, and insensitive to social cues.
Restorative settings (like the savannah tree mentioned above) are those that are compatible with our personal inclinations and the kinds of activities supported by the setting. By being in nature we help restore our attention by “being away” in a place that is physically or conceptually different from our usual environment. The patterns of nature are much different than the built environment. We don’t have to force ourselves to pay so much attention because the content of our surroundings is engaging the mind and promoting effortless exploration and fascination. A forest (covered more sufficiently by nature) is more restorative than a shelf with a plant on it, but a basement with no windows and a plant is better than a brick wall with no green at all. (R&S Kaplan, The Experience of Nature 1989, Restoration of attention Deficit; 1995 generic features of restorative environments)
Psychophysiolgical stress recovery has been shown in many of Ulrich’s studies.
- Window views influenced recovery time and use of pain and sleep meds for surgery patients
- Improvement in mood states accompanied by physiological changes
Environmental self regulation: In 2008 Mitchell & Popham found that green space can dilute the effects of poverty and risk of morbidity and mortality.
(See the resource list: Ulrich 1984 Science, 224(4647):420-421; Ulrich et al 1991; Mitchell & Popham 2008 – Lancet 372(9650):1655-1660)
We long to be in nature. We know time spent in nature is vital to our wellness. (Richard Louv’s book on Nature-deficit disorder is chock full of research on the effects of lack of nature in our lifestyle), we’ve created “virtual worlds and gaming environments”, but I’m choosing to see that as a society, we are reclaiming built environments for natural space (Check out The High Line in NYC), and choosing a more balanced way to spend time. How can you make this restoration real for you?
- Garden. In a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, gardening reduced the stress hormone cortisol significantly more than reading. Gardeners also get better sleep than those who perform non meaningful exercise.
- Get Green exercise. Walk outside. Consider geocaching as a hobby. Go cycling or kayaking. There are such things as fitness trails and outdoor gyms. Is there one near you? Check out greenexercise.org. Pretty et al 2007 provided evidence that exercise carried out in natural settings has greater health benefits than indoor exercise. Even more studies this decade have shown decreased anxiety and improved mood from even short amounts of time spent exercising outdoors.
- Meditation using guided imagery and sounds if you cannot spend quiet alone time in nature itself. Focus on the big and the small. Nature can be a forest or a spider or the feel of the air , the sound of the wind, the smells that surround you, the ripple on the water. The richness of the sensations we experience in nature are the “happy place”. If you have a chance to get training in biofeedback, do so. Practice it and it will help you and you will want to share it with your clients.
- Biophilic design connects the built environment to the natural world. (Kellert) Google the new Apple headquarters. It is glass, round, and surrounded by trees. This connection to nature improves ambient health and well-being to impact empathy, connectedness, and productivity. How can you bring nature into your built environments?
- Include the technology layer of your reality. Can you bring your office outside? Consider a biophilic computer kit, wallpapers, ringtones, etc.
- Connect with animals. Can you have a class or office pet? My orthodontist has an amazing fish tank with beautiful plants in it. My favorite restaurant isn’t only because of the food, it’s because of the fish tank! I’d wait for an hour to be seated near it.
- Grow plants. On your desk, in the bathroom. In the hallway. On the balcony. Everywhere. Check out a list of low light and low maintenance plants and go to your favorite garden center armed with knowledge.
- If at all possible, allow for a view of nearby natural settings. Can you get rid of a cubicle wall? If that’s not possible, photographs of nature and natural crafts are doable! Check out my pinterest page for some ideas.
So, yes, it’s a thing. 🙂 Use it. And let us know how it’s going.
Love & Sunshine (in this beautiful November!)