Archive for July 9th, 2013

July 9, 2013

Can Nature Make Us Happier? (Hint: Yes)

by Melissa Harding

Summer Reruns: Just like your favorite television shows go on hiatus for the summer, so does the blog. We will be running eighteen summer camps in eight weeks, so we will be a little busy! In place of original posts, Tuesdays will now feature some of the blog’s most popular posts from the last year. Fridays will feature that week’s camps, with pictures, crafts and lesson ideas for parents and educators.

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Walking in the city can be stressful; honking horns, loud cars whizzing past, sharing paths with speeding bikers, and suddenly ending sidewalks can turn a relaxing walk into a nightmare. Urban commuting can be difficult, but there is one country where the government is taking steps to help its citizens. The Japanese government, recognizing the natural stress relief and health benefits found in nature, has created a national system of Forest Therapy trails. Covering 67 percent of the country’s landmass, these 48 trails have been designed by Japan’s Forest Agency to promote the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. Shinrin-yoku, a term inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist conventions, is the practice of letting nature enter the body through all five senses.

The government is not just creating these trails, but conducting research on the effects forest bathing has on participants. While there have been studies in recent years that support the health benefits of nature, the government’s work is critical. Scientists in Japan are measuring what is actually happening in human cells and neurons as the body responds to nature. Led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, they’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how this works on a molecular level (Source). This research may help move this kind of nature therapy from the fringes into the realm of mainstream medicine.

Japan may be the first country to engage in this kind of research, but they are not the only ones. South Korean and Finish governments are also starting their own research into the benefits of nature. So why is the United States so far behind? It may come from how we view nature in our lives. Much like David Thoreau, many of us view nature as a romantic notion that is outside of human civilized society. Nature is something that we escape to, rather than something we depend on to sustain us. In contast, the Japanese view nature as an integral part of their lives; nature is part of their minds and bodies and philosophy. When Japanese citizens visit the forest, it is to come back to themselves and replenish their minds and spirits.

Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a prime researcher in this field, has studied over 600 subjects since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 7 percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. These numbers are so convincing that over a quarter of Japan’s 127 million citizens partake in forest therapy in some way (Source).

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So how can we get the same benefits without going to Japan? The key appears to be paying attention. You can’t get nature points from jogging in the woods with your headphones in. In fact, studies show that when you are distracted outside, you are more likely to be irritable and grumpy later. Deliberate, mindful attention to natural surroundings allows the mind to relax. Modern life demands long hours of sustained attention to tasks, like working at a computer all day and sitting in traffic; this is what causes our brains to grab ahold of anxiety. In contrast, the attention that we show a beautiful bird in a tree is an example of soft fascination, which allows our brains to let go of that anxiety and marvel at the world around us. Our minds do it naturally, if we let them. Short walks in greenery, or even looking at nature images, improve the brain’s ability to engage in directed attention; this type of activity not only helps improve cognitive function, but makes brains happier.

So what advice do researchers have for people looking to boost their happiness with nature? Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, has this advice, “If you have time for a vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”

Even cold weather walks count. Whether or not participants enjoy themselves outside is immaterial to the benefits of the experience; people who walked in the cold and felt uncomfortable still report boosted brain function. January may not feel like a great time to start being outside more often, but it truly is. This new year, resolve to go to a quiet, outdoor place at least once a week and restore your brain. Not only will you feel better, but you will be smarter – for free. What a great deal!

To read more about the research surrounding the practice of shinrin-yoku, as well as to learn how the Japanese experience nature, read Outside Magazine‘s December story, The Nature Cure: The Surprising Benefits of the Great Outdoors, by Florence Williams.

The above photos were taken by Melissa Harding


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