Hugging trees is not just for the hippies! Apparently everyone can enjoy nature and get some measurable extras: grounding, creativity, eye rest. For more reading, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Oh, and I provide plenty of my own tips to small to be a part of any course.
There are many no-brainer recommendations that I feel confident in giving others, but not motivated to follow myself. Going outdoors is just one of those. There are simply too many things to do at home. The weather is bad 50% of the year: it is too hot, too wet, or simply too many mosquitos. So I stay at home more than I should.
There is a huge body of evidence proving me wrong, and I want to address it here. Getting outdoors at least 10% of your time might be a great idea.
Green is good for your eyes
Eyestrain is one of the biggest concerns of modern existence. We literally spend half of our day or more staring at some sort of screen.
The first recommendation: never keep your device closer than 30 cm from your eyes. Ideally, you should be focusing on infinity, so the further away from your screen the better. This means that you should go for the bigger screens, and stay away from small laptops and mobiles. Fortunately, this is easy for me as I need great screens simply to do my job.
Then there is the issue of brightness. Screens are extremely bright, with a tendency to blue. We need green for our eyes to rest. My personal tip: when typing focus on the keyboard and occasionally glance at the screen, not the other way.
Additionally, our eyes get tired from saccading like reading and following moving objects – like videos and games. So we need to give them rest and do eye gymnastics from time to time. Also, if you can master visual flow (use eidetic vision and enhanced visual angle), you will not saccade.
Going outdoors the eyes can truly rest: most of the objects are big, far, green-ish, and static.
I quote: “Students and employees with a view of nature, either indoors or right outside their windows, were not only found to be more productive but also more alert, more attentive, more relaxed, in better moods, and less irritated by physical symptoms of allergies and asthma than their counterparts who had no views of plant life or other natural settings.”
Interestingly, natural-looking wallpapers, screensavers, and nature movies partially capture this effect. Visualizing nature during daily meditation also helps.
Another reason to go outdoor is a digital detox. The idea is simple: as we are outdoors we do not check media, read doors, or see videos.
Instead, we can focus on the toughest challenges we try to face: both personal and occupational. Alternatively, we have an honest and uninterrupted discussion with people we cherish. And if neither, we developed to be bored from time to time and really need this to be creative.
The simple ability to focus on one idea or one person without constant interrupts is valid and valuable.
Of cause I developed my own productivity tool for that: during my most productive hours each day (20% of the time) I put on my headphones and do not check mails or WhatsApp. People still can physically call for my attention, but this almost never happens. Then I often spend my time doodling: this focuses me and allows processing the thoughts.
Going outdoors can be a massive advantage, as you can do this “detox” for several days.
Nature calms us down
The following psychological effects were measured:
- Stress reduction
- Reduced symptoms of depression/anxiety.
- Fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
- Improved symptoms of attention-deficient disorders (ADD/ADHD)
- Fewer symptoms of dementia.
- Better self-esteem.
The effects are not very strong, but very consistent. There is a clear connection between city size and walking pace of the residents. People kind of instinctively stress as they try to avoid crowds. Of cause, if we live and work in suburbean areas or satellite towns, we get the benefits both of the big cities and of the natural environment.
Clearly, we can go for a picnic. That would be a proper outdoor activity, yet it will not be a physical activity. Hiking or biking are classical outdoor physical activities.
Bo be honest we could simply walk around our city block, but if the weather is right and there is a large green area available, it is better to walk there. It is reasonable to do short high-intensity training in a gym, and long low-intensity activity outdoors.
Green space walking may contribute to working memory access: focus, creativity, sense of vitality. Some of it may have to do with better breathing air.
I quote: “Compared to those who walked through a well-trafficked urban area, participants in several studies who walked through a green space or a natural environment, such as an arboretum, were better able to focus and concentrate on a test of their working memory. … Nature walks, and even short visits to parks and woodlands within urban areas, have been found to boost creativity, mood, and sense of vitality.”
Damage by elements
Being outdoors we are more sensitive to elements. Walking in clean woods in a sunny spring day is a lot of fun. However, such scenarios are rare.
If we walk in our city-scape we breathe the pollution of the city, even if we do not see it. There is dust in the air from cars, people, whatever industry is there. This might still be fine, except for some specific days. Some meteorological maps show daily pollution, which is especially useful if the dust comes from a desert.
When walking on a beach or snow, the sun intensity can be an issue. It can cause skin damage and even melanoma. Of cause, we can glasses and creams, which are OK if we drink enough and do not overheat.
If there is not enough sun, we do not use the vitamin D effect of outdoor activities: the sun shining on us helps us produce this vitamin. About a third of the world’s population has some minor vitamin D deficiency anyway.
If it is cold and wet we might get sick. Bummer… If some wildlife gets to sting us, we will be annoyed, and later may need medical treatment. Double bummer… When the road is not plain and soft, there is a chance of some orthopedic injury. The more we walk, the higher the risk. To be honest, scratches are more likely than anything serious.
Basically this idea of “the elements” is my main excuse to stay home when I feel lazy.
There are several kinds of activities which increase the connection with nature:
- Taking care of pets, or visit zoos
- Walk barefoot, feeling the ground under the feet
- Nurturing plants
To be honest I do all of this in my apartment and I do not really need to go out. I live on the first floor of a small apartment building, so I installed plants on all of my windows with an automated watering system 20 years ago. Everything is still working. And I have a cat as a pet, living with us.
Seeing huge mossy trees rooted deeply in the ground is profoundly reassuring. However, not every climate allows such an encounter. If the climate allows, we might hug trees in our gardens, otherwise, we may consider ecotourism.
Many famous people created their greatest works in forest or countryside retreats far from their urban lives. It is easier to support long creative flow when there are no interrupts and in the vicinity of forests and lakes. For others, it is simply a great way to reduce stress.
To be honest, there is nothing new about pilgrimage. Ancient men and women occasionally went into forests and deserts for some spiritual search. There is something profoundly spiritual in being alone with nature. It is a sort of sensual deprivation. Strange hallucinations and deep revelation may happen.
Nowadays the live pace is so fast, that simply being a couple of days far from civilization is strange.
Approximately once a year I drive to a rural area to my wife’s parents. They live in a place with a population below 1000, and it feels like a different universe. Very quiet. On a mountain with a great view. No pollution. To be honest none of my great ideas came from that place, still, it is nice to detox for a weekend.
Being comfortable with discomfort
Unfortunately, I lack the resilience and fortitude of feeling good in a place without comfort. Nature tends to be archetypal:
- Meadows are mild, calm, and somewhat dull
- Forests tend to be mysterious and hide more than reveal
- Mountains are places of great foresight and majesty
- Deserts are harsh and character-building
- Lakes and rivers cause strong and deep emotions
Each type of nature has its pros and cons as seasons go by. It makes sense to visit all sorts of nature during the year: snowy mountains in winter, forests in spring and autumn, waterfronts in summer. This might be expensive both financially and time-wise. So we compromise… Scorching deserts in summer, gloomy forests and frozen water in winter, slippery hills in spring, and in autumn… Less than ideal.
How much is enough?
Doctors recommend spending at least two hours a week outdoors, in green places where you will not see more than 100 people in one day. I think 100 hours a year outdoors is something that even I comply with. However, the main idea is: spending at least two hours outdoors every week in every weather walking, running, hiking. This requires focus, yet if you can you should do it. A no-brainer…