A dose of nature is a taste of happiness
The enchanting gardens of Hever Castle are among my favourite finds. Nestled in the Kentish countryside and childhood home of Anne Boleyn, these gardens feel like an invitation into a fairytale. I remember losing myself among the woodland paths, revelling in the perfumed rose garden, and picnicking next to the pond where children fed swans and ducks. This memory remains but a vivid dream, but one feeling surely lingered: how remarkable I felt, both physically and mentally, just basking in nature. Over the course of many similar forays, I have grown more curious as to understand how nature can be such a source of solace and well-being.
Since time immemorial, people have sought the refuge of nature for healing. The 16th-century German-Swiss physician, Paracelsus, believed in this outlook as well by proclaiming that, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.” In fact, two centuries ago, the Romantic poets preached the benefits of escaping the clutches of industrialised, crowded cities and venturing into more pastoral locations. For many of the famous writers during that era, such as William Wordsworth and Jane Austen, nature was always a haven and references to it are amass in classical literature. American writers such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau also trumpeted the benefits of spending time in the outdoors. Thoreau himself lived for two years in a cabin in Walden Pond amidst woodland owned by his writer friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. His book, Walden, chronicles that sojourn in nature.
But with pressed time and competing recreational activities, it would take more than just a frivolous argument to convince people. As luck would have it, I chanced upon just the book to scientifically prove that nature is more than just a pretty sight. In her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams reveals why nature is so good for the body, mind, and soul.
Williams introduces readers to the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’; which is the idea of spending quality time in forests and natural areas to reap innumerable health benefits. Due to the long working hours and stressful competition in Japan, the country saw an increase in karoshi (death by overwork). As a response, the Japanese government invested $4 million to understand the effects of forest bathing on people’s health. Indeed, researchers have proven that spending time in nature boosted the immune system’s functioning, reduced blood pressure, lowered the stress hormone cortisol, improved mood, and increased energy levels. As a result, the Japanese Forestry Agency has established 1,055 recreation forests for people to enjoy nature, in addition to boasting over 48 forest therapy trails with guides and well-being programmes.
In Norway, for example, having access to nature is a fundamental right, as stated in the Outdoor Recreation Act of 1957. The law allows people to enjoy nature in a variety of ways; including overnight camping, cycling on trails and roads, swimming, sailing, fishing without a licence for saltwater species, hiking, and picking berries, mushrooms, and wildflowers for personal use. As you can see, there are many ways to immerse oneself in nature, varying according to a country’s topography and even the seasons or individual interests. Take the example of allotment gardening, which is quite a popular pastime in Norway. This is essentially a plot of land sold to individuals for private gardening. Members can grow their choice of fruits, vegetables, and edible flowers. Research has proven that such a pastime results in improved physical and psychological health due to a moderate intensity of physical activity, consumption of the healthy produce, and bonding with neighbouring gardeners.
Many governments are realising the importance of designing cities that maximise the well-being of its citizens. Nature is a major mood booster and health enhancer. As such, urban planners have started incorporating green spaces into cities to promote particular activities and achieve intended outcomes. For example, building community parks or biking and walking trails can play a huge role in combatting increasing levels of obesity and lifestyle-induced chronic diseases. In some countries, such as Switzerland, hiking trails are organised according to preferred scenic routes, varying physical intensity, length of hike, and season.
Nature, like any other medicine, follows a dose curve. The more exposure you get to nature, the more you will reap in terms of improved physical and mental well-being. Simple activities, such as gardening or placing plants in your home can enliven you. Also, beginning an exercise routine within the several public parks and beaches is a wonderful way to unwind. The UAE is blessed with a stunning topography and in the recent years, thoughtful policy design has ensured the conservation and incorporation of natural areas within its cities. Families now have a range of locations to enjoy nature at its most pristine and beautiful, such as the mesmerising Mangrove National Park in Abu Dhabi or the expansive Hatta Dam. I am positive that this slight lifestyle change can do wonders to your well-being.
Published in Gulf News.