“The average adult consumes five times more information every day than their counterpart 50 years ago” — Forbes
These days we all spend a lot of time indoors and in front of screens. In fact, a recent poll estimates that some adults will spend roughly 44 years of their life staring at screens. And, sadly, the pandemic increased screen time as people worked or attended school from home.
When the lockdown first began, I remember feeling exhausted from the constant virtual meetings followed by after hours virtual social events and then even more time spent in from of the T.V. or on the phone binging virtual entertainment.
I didn’t realize it immediately, but the burnout and stress that impacted my health was directly related to the increase in screen time.
Humans simply weren’t made to spend so much time on digital devices and in many ways this kind of always-connected-through-technology lifestyle is doing us more harm than good.
I started thinking about this during a much-needed nature retreat from work during the pandemic. I felt so much better after spending a weekend in the outdoors and I wanted to figure out the science behind it.
After some research, here’s why we all need to turn off our devices and get a daily dose of nature therapy:
1. Nature gives the brain a rest.
Does spending all day in front of a screen make you feel more stressed? Probably so, but for reasons you might not have thought of (at least I didn’t).
Digital devices place a lot of cognitive demand on humans, because they require us to switch our focus so much throughout the day.
Virtual environments necessitate that we communicate more and this takes a lot of brain power. Email, instant messages, texts, phone calls, and virtual meetings flood the entire work day, now in addition to the regular work load and household chores.
This constant barrage of notifications taxes your pre-frontal cortex, never allowing your brain to rest. It’s like being on full-time high alert.
Nature, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.
As David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah notes,
“When you’re enjoying nature, you can rest the prefrontal cortex. You’re more in the moment rather than ruminating about your problems. The parts of the brain associated with being mindful and in a meditative state become more active.”
Spending time in nature allows our minds to go on auto-pilot, so to speak, which relieves this cognitive demand and helps us reset.
Nature helps put your brain at ease from all the stress the virtual work life puts on us.
2. Nature promotes physical well-being.
Stress and burnout was bad enough before the pandemic, but virtual work has increased stress due to the additional demands of managing childcare and the anxiety of dealing with the current social and political issues.
The convenience of connecting through a screen means people are working more hours and then still using screens for entertainment in their downtime.
Professor Strayer, who studies cognition and nature specifically, highlights in his research the scientific evidence for how nature promotes physical health by lowering blood pressure and boosting the body’s immune response.
“Going into nature changes how your brain works; it reduces stress levels and boosts measures of well-being.”
And it doesn’t even take much time in nature to realize these incredible health benefits.
According a study published in Scientific Reports, one need only spend two hours a week in nature — or about fifteen minutes a day.
Finding short breaks throughout the day to take walks out in nature without your devices could literally save your life.
3. Nature makes us better at work.
But it’s not just for health reasons that we should seek more time nature.
Studies also demonstrate the remarkable positive effects of nature on our creative and problem-solving abilities.
As Florence Williams points out in her book “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative”,
“We don’t experience natural environments enough to realize how restored they can make us feel, nor are we aware that studies also show they make us healthier, more creative, more empathetic and more apt to engage with the world and with each other.”
Even just taking a moment to stare out the window at nature can actually make you more productive.
So if you want to do your best work, make time to soak up some nature.
“Go outside, often, sometimes in wild places. Bring friends or not. Breathe.” — Florence Williams
4. Nature is part of our DNA.
Humans evolved in nature. Yet these days we find ourselves stuck inside, inundated with technology. After all, it’s technology that enables remote work so that now we don’t even have to leave the house ever (or is that just me?).
To promote people leaving their homes and spending more time in nature, governments around the world are investing in protecting their outdoor spaces and making them more accessible for visitors.
Japan, for example, is promoting its ancient practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest-bathing”, as a way to get people out of the city and out in nature.
This is important, because as Williams tells us in her book,
“One-fifth of Japan’s residents live in greater Tokyo, and 8.7 million people have to ride the metro every day. Rush hour is so crowded that white-gloved workers help shove people onto the trains, leading to another unique term, tsukin jigoku — commuting hell.”
Living in crowded, polluted cities inside manmade environments glued to technology is not how humans were meant to live.
Ultimately, there’s a need to find balance between convenience and becoming a slave to modern life. And this is why all of us need nature therapy.
For this reason, it’s important to set aside time for nature every day.
As Williams recommends in her book,
“If you have time for vacation, don’t go to a city. Go to a natural area. Try to go one weekend a month. Visit a park at least once a week. Gardening is good. On urban walks, try to walk under trees, not across fields. Go to a quiet place. Near water is also good.”
So if you aren’t already, go outside.
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