I got The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams for Christmas and settled down to read it in the dark January evenings of Covid-lockdown-3. A major plus of the pandemic for me has been to trade time spent commuting with time spent outside walking the dog, and I am lucky enough to live surrounded by a national park, so I didn’t need convincing of the case for nature, but I did want to know what it is about being in nature that is so very good for us. It is the latest research on the various theories that this book unpacks.
Florence Williams is a journalist and so writes the book by telling a number of stories about her explorations of the mechanisms that mean that nature can heal. She goes around the world, meeting the scientists doing cutting-edge research and participating in a number of experiments herself, and organises the book on dosage – from the benefits of five minutes in nature, to the benefits of five hours a month in nature (which I am happily easily exceeding at the moment), up to longer and immersive wilderness experiences. I was particularly interested in a number of findings.
Many of the greatest writers have written of the power of walking alone to think and they were not wrong. Social nature boosts your mood (if you are walking with people you like of course), but if you want to solve problems in your life, self-reflect or jolt your creativity, then it’s better to walk alone. I imagine this is why I find my week-long solo walking holidays (with my dog) on the south-west coastal path so immensely valuable. Individuals also require different amounts of nature to make a difference. If you live in a city, you may be calmed and overjoyed by a single tree, but some people need a bigger nature hit. Trees themselves seem to play an important role - in experiments people benefit more from walks amongst trees than they do in urban areas and it seems that it could be to do with the scent that trees give off.
There is fascinating research here about how being in nature can help those with attention deficit disorder, mental health problems, or even trauma. Certain landscapes might be boosting our mood by quieting the brain-circuitry that governs self-wallowing. Nature is telling you to ‘get over yourself’ by showing that the world is bigger than you. Virtual reality (VR) nature experiments don’t work for Williams and it is reassuring to know that VR technology is not yet good enough to provide the same experience as being in nature. Hopefully that will mean we don’t use VR as an excuse to concrete over more of our wild spaces anytime soon.
At the end of the day, it is difficult to unpack and control for the various elements of being in nature – is it because we are not working, away from distracting technology, with friends, don’t have the pollution of urban areas, because there is less noise, or because of the fractal images in nature? The short answer is that we don’t yet have the answer to why nature is good for us, but it was really interesting to read about what is being done to help us find out.
Williams’ essential take-homes from the book are that we all need nearby nature (we benefit cognitively and psychologically from having trees, bodies of water and green spaces just to look at), and we need quick incursions to natural areas that engage our senses. Short exposures to nature make us less aggressive, more creative, more civic minded and healthier overall. For warding off depression, the research suggests trying five hours a month in nature, minimum. Then, at times, longer, deeper immersions into wild spaces will be needed, to recover from distress, imagine our futures and to be our best selves.
Williams ends with a simple coda: go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.
Great advice for all as we get through Covid-19.