I love to hang glide. My personal height record is about 4000 metres. To get that high, you first launch off the side of a cliff, then go hunting for a thermal—an invisible pocket of rising warm air. Thermals are released from the ground when it gets hot in much the same way that a bubble is released from the bottom of a pot of boiling water. When you fly into a thermal, you certainly know it, because its turbulence can toss you around like a leaf in the wind. Once you’ve located the thermal, you then need to pluck up the courage to start turning circles inside it, hanging on tight as you effortlessly climb heavenward. The day I attained my personal record, I watched the ground fall away as I circled up at about 300 metres per minute.
When the thermal gets high enough and cold enough, it begins to condense, which gives birth to a cumulus cloud. In my case, the air around me began to grow misty as I approached 4000 metres, at which point I was immersed in a new creation as the sky welcomed another fluffy decoration.
For several minutes, I flew around the edge of the forming cloud, just soaking it all in. Whichever way I looked, the view was absolutely breathtaking. I was surrounded by bright blue above, and below me was a mat of green that extended to the horizon. All my senses were alert, captivated, attuned to everything around me. And it wasn’t only the sights. There was a loud silence. And the moist cool air had the smell and texture of new rain. I felt truly alive and energised—awed, filled with wonder and joy—and I felt that way for days after. The experience will always stay with me.
Natural environments can lift us emotionally in rich and profound ways. Surely you have already experienced this. The view from a mountain peak. Gazing out over the vast ocean as the sun sets. The sound of running water from a mountain stream. The crisp smell of an alpine forest in the early morning, or the beauty of a field laden with wildflowers in the spring.
Why natural living is best
Our brain’s limbic system comes alive in these natural places because of the way it’s wired to our senses of sight, sound and smell. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle proposed the idea that we are designed to inhabit such places and that doing so is good for our happiness—it provides us with a “love of life” more recently referred to as biophilia. More than 30 studies have examined the influence of exposure to natural environments on how people feel, and the consensus is that they do indeed make people feel more positive and less negative.
Alarmingly, many people today live in artificial environments such as the concrete jungles of the city (“grey spaces”) and are starved of the natural world (“blue and green spaces”) that would make our limbic systems come alive. A new term has even been coined to describe this problem: nature-deficit disorder (NDD). Children suffering NDD because they don’t get to regularly surround themselves with the great outdoors are more prone to anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorder.
But we don’t have to live in a city to be separated from nature. Many people living in rural environments are missing the benefits of the natural landscapes that exist in their own backyard because we are increasingly living our lives indoors.
One hundred years ago, biologist Sir John Arthur Thomson warned that increasing modernisation would disconnect us from natural environments and that we would suffer for it. He couldn’t have been more correct. As our work, socialisation and recreation have become increasingly screen-based, we have become more disconnected from nature. Not surprisingly, a large study conducted in the United States found a significant relationship between depression and media use.
It’s time to reverse this trend and go au naturel—by which I mean return to natural environments. Dr Stephen Kaplan from the University of Michigan explains that modern living makes high demands of our information-processing skills—we have computers, traffic, smart phones, so many things bombarding our brains, which leads to unnatural mental strain. On the other hand, when natural stimuli such as landscapes and animals effortlessly engage our attention, we experience less mental fatigue.
Indeed, the great outdoors can do us good emotionally, and there is strong evidence for this. Hospital patients who merely have a view of a natural landscape tend to consume less painkilling medication and have shorter hospital stays. Exposure to “green” areas has been associated with less aggression, and even just a window view of nature is significantly correlated to lower levels of domestic violence. A New Zealand study showed that every one per cent increase in the amount of green space within three kilometres of an individual’s home was associated with a four per cent lower prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders.
Earth and air
Scientists are only beginning to learn why the great outdoors is so great for us, but some intriguing theories are emerging.
• The earth. We’ve already discussed the importance of bright light and natural colours, but a more novel theory relates to “earthing”. We know that our body and brain constantly have electrical impulses running through them—we measure these all the time in medicine—but it has been suggested that to function optimally we need to be “earthed”. The easiest way to do that is to kick off rubber-soled shoes and get around barefooted, spending time in our yards and gardens. It’s also helpful to spend time in ion-rich air, such as the kind that’s found near running water, rivers, the ocean, or very green spaces such as rainforests. There is some evidence that earthing can reduce chronic pain, improve blood sugar control and even boost immunity.
• The air. Another interesting theory relates to air quality. There is growing interest—and concern—regarding the impact of air quality on people’s health and wellbeing. Clearly, poor air quality can trigger respiratory problems, but scientists are discovering that the air we breathe can have other surprising effects too. For example, a study found that people living less than about 500 metres above sea level were five times more likely to be obese than those living higher than about 3000 metres. The reason why “thin air” might be “thinning” is that it causes biochemical changes that cause the limbic system to suppress appetite.
But there is more to air than just how thin it is. Other researchers are suggesting that rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere might be contributing to the obesity epidemic, as they too can cause biochemical changes in the brain, resulting in increased appetite. Over the past 50 years, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by about 40 per cent, while obesity has doubled. So if you now have a sudden interest in breathing less carbon dioxide, you will be interested to learn that the carbon dioxide levels in the air inside sealed rooms can be 20 to 100 times higher than outside!
Regardless of the mechanisms, studies consistently show that people who are more connected to nature suffer less anxiety and anger, and enjoy more vitality and happiness. Blue and green should often be seen—and touched and breathed and smelled.