Nature As Tonic For The Human Psyche


Nature is good for you in oh so many ways. So says Florence Williams in her upcoming book The Nature Fix, and in this Wall Street Journal preview essay. Sadly, we don’t behave as if we understand this, as two social scientists learned when they mapped where people are happy:

“[O]ne of the biggest variables for their subjects (who tended to be young, employed and educated) was where they were. They were significantly happier outdoors, especially in natural settings, than they were indoors, even when the researchers tried to control for the effects of being at work.

But there was a catch: Most of the participants didn’t behave as if they knew this, because they were rarely outside. They were indoors or in vehicles for 93% of their waking hours.

The Mappiness study reveals our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors—an indictment not just of the structures and expectations of modern life but of our self-understanding. As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why don’t we do more of what makes us happy? Part of the answer is that we’re flat-out busy. But even when we have free time, we’re not always smart about how we spend it.

I have long been a believer in the connection between happiness, creative energy, and the outdoors. Put me on a bike or on a walk (throw in a dog for a multiplier effect) and I always come home feeling good and with at least three worthwhile insights into work or life. Put me on a boat and I come home transformed.

Busyness, as Florence notes, is a huge block to feeding our souls in the outdoors (and busyness is so often purposeless). Social media and cable news are also two indoor, soul-sapping, distractions (and connecting to social media while outdoors is a particularly odious felony). So do we have a formula for a better, happier, existence? I think we do: Fewer electronic distractions, less meaningless busyness, more time outdoors and unplugged. Pretty simple and pretty effective.



Staying Happy

One of the paradoxes of working on many of the issues I care about is that it is easy to get depressed. The more I learn about any number of topics I write about or would like to write about–climate change, factory farming, our treatment of non-human species, our treatment of one another, species depletion, the list goes on–the more I have to consciously fight against a sense of despair and hopelessness. Because getting from where we are to where I hope we can be seems like such a great distance, and so many people seem disconnected or distracted from what really matters. Over the years, I worry, I have lost some of my joie d’vivre because I am too conscious of the many things wrong with our planet, our politics and our culture.

Of course, the work can be highly rewarding when there is an increment of progress in the right direction. Yet I still find myself wondering how best to try and be a joyful, optimistic person. Because not being that sort of person is not much fun (or very effective).

I don’t have the answer, so this analysis of ways in which you can “train” your brain to be happy naturally caught my attention. Key areas are: 1) Gratitude; 2) A Good Night’s Sleep; 3) Exercise; 4) Meditation; and 5) Doing Deep Work.

I would add 6) Spending Offline Time With Friends and Family. Especially In Nature. But, regardless, I am glad to see that I am at least on the right track in a number of areas (meditation is probably my largest untapped opportunity). What are your keys?

The Case Against “Busy”

Writer Tim Krieder offers a bracing and insightful rebuttal to the idea that we should measure our lives by how busy and productive we are:

My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love.

Naturally, as a person who has long valued time over money, he is singing my favorite hymn. But I am convinced that changing the way we value time and money (and how we spend our time; I prefer outdoors, with people, away from the electronic assault), is the key to reinventing not only how we live and seek happiness, but how human culture impacts the Earth. The current formula–work, earn, consume–is a disaster for the planet and doesn’t deliver happiness. A different approach that values time over money, nature and outdoor activity over manufactured entertainment, and personal relationships over consumption, I think, would go a long way toward bringing humanity into balance with the planet. Throw in an emphasis on compassion, tolerance, and selflessness, and you start to imagine a wholly different, and wholly more appealing, future.

Vegetables = Happiness?

Or it could be that Happiness = Vegetables. Either way, researchers have established a correlation (and, yes, I’ve been waiting for this a long time):

People who eat more vegetables and fruits are significantly happier than those who eschew such foods.

Dartmouth University’s Daniel Blanchflower looked at the eating habits of 80,000 British citizens. He, alongside two British researchers, saw that mental well being — satisfaction with one’s life on a scale of one to 10 — rose alongside each serving of produce consumed daily…

[snip]…There is one big, outstanding question that he acknowledges: What’s the causal relationship? It could be that eating vegetables make people happy — or that happier people tend to chow down on more salads.

“It might be that we just have all these vegetarians that are richer or happier,” Blanchflower says. “There are definitely issues of causality. At the same time, I think what we’ve done here is establish correlation. I don’t think we expected to see the relationship we did. The reason you’re calling me is because this was unexpected.”

Nevermind they haven’t figured out which way the causation runs. The correlation alone is just one more reason to at least think like a vegetarian.

Now all they need to show is that vegetarians have more sex and we’ll be getting somewhere.

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