In my last post, I talked about the amazing effects of forest bathing. Today, I want to talk about another study that Japanese researcher Yoshifumi Miyazaki conducted. It shows some interesting results on whether flowers make people relax.
A Small but Key Study
Miyazaki’s team wanted to see if there were any changes in the body when subjects looked at flowers. So he had 127 people gaze at pink roses while the team measured their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity. These two states happen when you’re stressed or relaxed. From the baseline, they found that subjects who looked at pink roses had lower sympathetic nervous activity (stress) by 25 percent. They also found those subjects’ parasympathetic nervous activity (relaxation) rose by 29 percent. So bottom line? Yes, seeing flowers makes the human body relax.
A Small Flower Has Big Worth
Though this study doesn’t get into why flowers relax people, we can guess it has to do with how we’re biologically wired. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how our eyes align with fractal patterns in nature and I suspect that relationship has something to do with it too. Regardless, if you’re feeling stressed, you might lift your mood by buying a bouquet from the supermarket. Maybe by looking at a lovely photo on the web. Maybe by growing perennials in your backyard. Whatever the method, getting flowers into your life will be worth the cost and trouble. And the best part for gardening nuts like me? We can now justify all those impulse buys from the nursery. Science shows we need them for our mental health!
By now, you may have heard of forest bathing. Though it has a dreamy Western name, it’s really just the act of mindfully walking among trees. Researchers started investigating its health benefits in 2004. Dr. Qing Li, a professor and immunologist at Nippon Medical School and vice president of the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine, along with Yoshifumi Miyazaki, a researcher at Chiba University, were the first to scientifically explore this phenomenon. Until that time, the country’s forestry department had started the program as a healthy lifestyle choice. Now, thanks to their and others’ studies, we’re learning the amazing effects of forest bathing. Here are three biggies.
It creates NK cells
The most impressive effect is how well the human body creates NK cells. NK is a shorthand term for a type of white blood cell that protects us from disease. Dr. Li found that after Tokyo businessmen spent two hours hiking every morning for three days, their NK count shot up by 40 percent. When he investigated further, he discovered that inhaling the trees’ essential oils had boosted the subjects’ immune systems. Conversely, the subjects who walked for the same duration over the same three days in the city did not increase their NK count.
It lowers stress hormones
Professor Miyazaki found that people who walked in the forest for 15 minutes lowered their stress hormone (or cortisol) concentration by 12.7 percent. Also parasympathetic activity (relaxed state) increased by over 100 percent. To him, this makes perfect sense since our bodies evolved in nature over thousands of years and inherently yearn to be at one with it.
It boosts creativity
Have you ever noticed you solve problems after taking a walk? Well, David Strayer from the University of Utah found that creativity shot up 50 percent in subjects who spent three days in nature. The prefontal cortex is less active in nature. That rest allows your brain to wander and make random connections, leading to problem-solving and creativity.
These are the most well known effects of forest bathing but the science continues to grow and support the practice. And just to clarify, this doesn’t mean you have to backpack into the Alaskan wilderness. As Dr. Li says, “This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”
I hope you can get into the woods this weekend and immerse yourself in all nature has to offer. It just might improve your mood.
Photo by Daniel Sessler
Yesterday, I recommended the book The Nature Fix for those who want a compendium of the latest research about the healing effects of nature. Today, I want to spotlight a study in that book that I thought was incredibly revealing. It shows how we often miscalculate the benefits of spending time in nature. We see it as a luxury but we often don’t see nature as a necessity. Our mental health suffers as a result.
A Psychologist Gives Students a Choice
The psychologist Elizabeth Nisbet at Trent University in Ontario followed 150 students as they either walked outside by a canal or through one of the campus tunnels. Both routes arrived at the same destination. Beforehand, students had to fill out a questionnaire on how they thought they’d feel on their walks and then another one afterward to report their well-being. Nisbet found that “although outdoor walks in nearby nature made participants much happier than indoor walks did, participants made affective forecasting errors, such that they systematically underestimated nature’s hedonic benefit.”
Because participants commonly underestimated how happy they’d feel afterward, they chose not to walk outside as often. That, in turn, created a kind of nature-avoidance loop. Generally speaking, when people choose not to go outside, they don’t know what they’re missing out on. Meanwhile, their mental well being doesn’t heal or advance. Then, once that avoidance attitude takes hold, they not only get outside less often but they don’t value the environment as much, which, in turn, lowers their valuation of sustainable practices, etc.
In the end, we may feel like the “environment” or “nature” is something apart from us and far away. We may still feel a sense of ennui or stress but the idea that a walk along a canal or in a park can alleviate that seems silly or like it won’t work. There’s just one solution: to get outside and find out! I hope, if you have a choice, you’ll consider taking a walk outside today. Afterward, I bet you’ll be surprised at how much better you feel.
Photo by Jako janse Van Rensburg
In 2017, Florence Williams wrote an outstanding book called The Nature Fix. It’s the best collection I’ve read about the science behind the restorative effects of nature. (It’s akin to Richard Louv’s The Nature Principle but more focused solely on the science.) Williams traveled the globe from Japan to Utah to Scotland in an effort to answer the question of exactly why spending time in nature is so healing for us.
What makes the book my favorite is Williams, a journalist, brings a neutral but skeptical eye to the process. She interviews a multitude of scientists, researchers, and therapeutic program directors, sometimes immersing herself in their current studies and retreats, to learn about the latest findings. Then, in a friendly but unsentimental voice, she easily translates those findings into simple, digestible information for the reader.
Reporting With a Personal Touch
She also mixes in a touch of her personal history and experiences too. She examines why she always felt happier in Boulder, Colorado rather than Washington, D.C. (hint, it has to do with the availability of natural landscapes). And we hear the story of her father being hit by a car to illustrate the positive effects of hospitalized patients looking out a window at nature during recovery. It’s a perfect mix of personal stories that reflect the broader issues.
If you’re curious about what exactly the latest research is on the restorative effects of nature, check out this book. It’s an engaging, fascinating read. And seeing how researchers are still conducting and publishing studies, I hope Williams will write a second edition or follow up soon.
I was passing by our local art gallery the other day, feeling rushed and worried. Then I noticed these gorgeous paintings. They’re a collaboration by Cindra Avery and Melissa Newell who are both local Northwest artists. I couldn’t stop gazing at these magnificent paintings of leaves. They locked me into a trance of admiration. I felt my breath slow, my vision calm. After a few moments, I walked away, reminded of how much a few plant paintings can lower stress and soothe the soul.
Collaborative by Nature
The pieces together are called “Collaborative by Nature.” As the artists say, “It represents a six-year creative collaboration focused on the natural world. The impetus for this work was based on our shared interests in gardening, birds, collage and mixed media design.”
The artists describe how the theme emerged organically: “We passed pieces back and forth until both of us felt we had fully explored the material, the surfaces, and finally, the meaning. When we first started this experiment in creative collaboration, we were often surprised and a bit unnerved by the work we received and briefly left with ‘What am I supposed to do?’ … Over time our pieces and work evolved, with each of us responding to the marks, color use and forms as we pushed each other in new directions.”
They’re Just Leaves But…
What is it about an artistic manifestation of plants that’s so alluring? After all, the actual subjects are just leaves. But something in my brain locked onto those recognizable images and then studied their unique curvatures, textures, and color. It was as if I’d seen those plants and yet hadn’t seen them. Avery and Newell had rendered their essence in the plant paintings but via an elevated interpretation that offered something wholly new to the world.
If you’d like to learn more about these wonderful artists, check out Melissa’s website here.