The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative

I wonder if you get health benefits simply from reading this book. Florence Williams covers a lot of scientific ground in her exploration of how humans react to nature in ways that reduce stress and make us more sane and healthy. The senses are scrutinized individually: smell (aromatherapy benefits of tree exhalations), sound, sight. Brain waves are measured with EEG machines in the field. Surveys are meticulously taken. Fists are shaken at the omnipresent planes flying over her house in DC with negative comparisons to her previously idyllic life in Colorado.

I began to weary a bit of the attempt by science to pry out the mystery of why nature helps us and was happy when stumbling on Williams’s own misgivings: “I find the intellectual compulsion to break apart the pieces of nature and examine them one by one both interesting and troubling. I understand it’s the way science works… [but the] poets would find this is nonsense.” All of her encounters with virtual reality simulations of nature in the experiments seemed to be a bust, nothing can compare to the sensations of being outside. She travels around the world, citing pithy quotes from Edward Abbey to Frederick Olmsted to Ellen Meloy to Wordsworth (Bill AND Dorothy!) to Thoreau to Emerson and Whitman (why no Annie Dillard?), forest bathes in Japan, desert hikes for 3 days with a group of university students, whitewater rafts for a week with women veterans recovering from PTSD, and much more.

Tidbits:

  • There’s evidence that “more introverted or neurotic people are more annoyed by loud noises” than other people are. Fantastic.
  • Our brains are similar to birds in the parts that hear, process, and make language. “Humans share more genes governing speech with songbirds than we do with other primates.” This may help explain why we have a “primal affiliation” with bird sounds that soothe us (if you don’t hear birds, something might be wrong).
  • Fight for proximity to a window wherever you are: hospital, office, etc. Even Florence Nightingale’s 19th century nursing textbook showed the importance of light second only to fresh air.
  • Five hours a month in nature bare minimum for sanity. “Just 15-45 minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration.”
  • Alone or with friends? Psychologist Wohlwill wrote that “natural environments experienced in solitude seemed especially restorative to people who are mentally fatigued or socially stressed.” But research suggests that if you’re depressed or anxious, social walking in nature helps if you’re with people you like. It’s better to be alone if you want to boost creativity, self-reflect, or solve problems in your life.
  • Exercise of any sort is beneficial; physical activity changes the brain to improve memory, slow aging, improve mood, lower anxiety, help depression.
  • To combat self-wallowing, get out into nature to see that the universe is bigger than you.
  • Psychologist Searles in 1960: “The nonhuman environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence… Over recent decades we have come from dwelling in another world in which the living works of nature either predominated or were near at hand, to dwelling in an environment dominated by a technology which is wondrously powerful and yet nonetheless dead.”