A neuroscientist is discovering that time in nature is one of the best ways to reduce stress and increase happiness and productivity. Here are the specific doses that work the magic.
In my new book The Comfort Crisis, which looks at the benefits of engaging with forms of mind-and-body-enhancing discomfort our ancestors faced every day, I spend a section unpacking all the benefits of the outdoors … of which, I found, there are a metric shit-ton.
The problem: Most of us today rarely experience the natural world. We spend 93 percent of our time indoors. More than half of Americans don’t go outside for any type of recreation at all. That includes the simple stuff like walking and jogging. The time we spend outdoors has declined over the past few of decades and American kids play outside 50 percent less than their parents did. Camping in the woods is down about 30 percent since 2006.
We shouldn’t be surprised. “If given a choice, human brains are going to say ‘give me something that I can control or predict,’” a Brown University Medical School neuroscience research told me. Humans evolved to jones for future knowledge for survival. Knowing where our next meal was coming from kept us from dying. But now this fear of uncertainty oversteps its old boundaries, going beyond food to any unknown circumstance. This is why many people become trapped within that safety net of the indoors.
The nature research suggests that braving the uncertainty of the outdoors is one of the best things we can do to reduce stress, tame burnout, and increase happiness and productivity. The more time in nature, the better. But you needn’t go all Christopher McCandless to see benefits.
For example, one study found there’s a little magic in just 20 minutes. The scientists discovered that 20 minutes outside, three times a week is the dose of nature that most efficiently dropped peoples’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The catch: You can’t be on your cell phone, you must be focused on the outdoors.
An ideal quick dose is 20 minutes, three times a week of, let’s call it, “urban nature.” This nature is found in cities, suburbs, and towns. But we can even be lazier than that and still experience benefits.
For example, having plants in your office can increase your productivity. That study — conducted across multiple offices with hundreds of workers — found the boost was about 15% more work completed. The workers also said they liked their job more.
There’s other research that shows even having a view of nature out of a hospital window helps people recover quicker. That one, published in Science in 1984, also found that the patients with window views had fewer complications, complained less, and didn’t need to pop as many pain pills.
Even taking a route to work where you see more green is beneficial. The study gathered surveys of thousands of workers from cities both minute and massive. It found that people who passed the most green space commuting to work had better mental health.
And people who live near green spaces are less at risk of all kinds of diseases. A review looked at all the data from 143 studies on the topic. It showed those people were less likely to have heart attacks, strokes, asthma, and diabetes, and were also more likely to survive if they came down with cancer.
This is why it’s important to stop thinking that nature, as Yale professor Steven Kellert said is “out there, somewhere else.” Like it’s a place that exists only in episodes of Planet Earth or on voyages to Alaska. Nature is often right outside your window, in your back yard, lining your block, and in that park down the street.
To learn more about how to micro (and macro) dose nature check out my book. It also delves into other fundamental discomforts we’ve removed from our lives, and how we can consciously weave them back in for better physical, mental, and spiritual health. I’ve partnered with a local bookshop whose profits support writing programs for at-risk youth. You can buy it from them here.