You and The World

Every month we’re going to bring you a new post on how to make it a HAPPY WORLD through our 10 Habits of Happiness.

This time, we’re looking at ‘Y’ for You and the World. Our guest blogger Anya Pearse explains why connecting to the world around us is so important for our health and well-being.

Screenshot 2019-05-30 at 10.07.07.png

It’s so easy to look at ourselves and see where we start and end. We can see the floor we’re stood on, or the chair we’re sitting on. They’re not a part of us, and we’re not a part of them. Right?

But in truth you’re no more separate from the world around you than these letters are from the page they’re written on. Our environment influences us in ways we often don’t realise.

And if your environment is consistently grey, urban or concrete, you’re missing out on one of the simplest and easiest ways to be healthier and happier: spending time in nature.

How does being in nature makes us happier?

Photo by  Pixabay  from  Pexels

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

It’s a developing field of study, but some researchers suggest that we may have two kinds of attention - directed attention and fascination.

They suggest that using too much of the former can lead to what they call "directed attention fatigue" which leads to impulsivity, distractibility and irritability.

It’s hardly surprising. Focusing your attention for long periods of time, even if you’re not aware of it, can tire you out. This is especially true if your nervous system’s on alert for threats around the corner (and towns and cities have a LOT of corners).

But studies show the inherent fascination that nature triggers can actively help people recover from this worn-out state.

"Directed attention fatigues people through overuse," researcher Stephen Kaplan Phd explains. "If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic [rather than forced], you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that's strong on fascination."

It’s this kind of fascination which the popular naturalist, author and illustrator Emma Mitchell shares in her beautifully written and illustrated book, The Wild Remedy; How Nature Mends Us.

It’s a diary which takes a journey not only through the months and seasons, with graceful illustrations and photographs to enchant the eye, but also Emma’s own journey with her mental health;

“I’m not going to mince my words: I suffer from depression and have done for twenty-five years.

Some days my brain feels though it is mired in a dark quicksand of negativity; on others, layers of thick greyish cloud seem to descend, weighing down my thoughts and burgling my motivation.

I find it difficult to move, and the urge to stay nestled indoors beneath a quilt and near to Netflix is strong.

[But] if I do force myself to get up off the sofa .. simply getting out of the house and seeing the blackthorns and lime trees opposite our cottage induces a response in me that I can only describe as a neuronal sigh of relief: an unseen, silent reaction that is simultaneously soothing and curative.”

How does being in nature positively affect our health?

Photo by  Artem Beliaikin  from  Pexels

In lots of ways! Research from the University of East Anglia last year shows that being exposed to green space reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure.

It can also reduce the level of stress chemicals in your body;

"People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol -- a physiological marker of stress.

This is really important because in the UK, 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety."

How does it do all this?

Photo by  rawpixel.com  from  Pexels

Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

We’re not exactly sure, but it’s a growing field of interest - no pun intended! Some suggest that the colours blue (water, sky) and green (grass, trees, vegetation) are particularly soothing for our eyes, as they’re less stressful for us to process.

The Wild Remedy also gives sources of scientific studies which explore the benefits of phytoncides (the volatile compounds and oils produced by plants) on our immune systems.

Just being exposed to more sunlight and benign soil bacteria triggers a release of serotonin - the “happy” chemical - from a specific group of nerve cells in our brains. You can see how the benefits keep adding up!

An increasingly popular way to absorb these benefits is through Shinrin-yoku - or forest bathing. Developed in Japan through the 1980s, scientific research is exploring how it benefits us physically, and studies show that as little as 15 minutes can have a positive influence on our well-being!

Plus, the more time you spend in nature and the natural environment, the more you want to protect it.

It’s a reciprocal relationship because, as important as nature has been shown for our health and happiness, our own interaction with the natural world is just as important for protecting nature and the environment for the future.

Many organisations, groups and concerned individuals would like to see nature and protecting the environment higher up on the political agenda. We can see this through the frequent climate demonstrations taking place all over the world, and in the increasing number of declarations of a climate emergency.

“If we can help people to connect with nature, that’s not just good for them, it’s great news for nature,” says The Wildlife Trust’s Lucy McRobert.

“Nature isn’t just a nice thing to have – although it has a huge value in itself – it’s fundamentally important for our health, well-being and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we treat the physically or mentally ill, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities.

Ultimately we want to see everyone taking action to restore nature – for nature’s sake and for ours.”

Action for June; Step into nature!

Increasing the time you spend in nature is easy with just a few tweaks to your existing routine. Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

  • How can you make spending time in nature really obvious to you? Can you change your phone wallpaper to a photo of a beautiful natural view or landscape? Can you buy potted herbs or plants and keep them on your windowsill? Can you keep your walking boots near your front door, so they’re always ready to go?

  • How can you make this habit attractive? Can you share your time in nature with someone? Can you start a WhatsApp group or Instagram account to take photos of the nature you see around you, wherever you are?

  • How can you make it easy? Can you change your route to work so that you walk through a park? Can you leave 15 minutes early for an appointment, so you can take a detour to some green space along the way? Can you meet friends for a picnic in the park, or organise a meeting in a garden? Or how about swapping the gym for your local parkrun?

  • How can you make it satisfying? What is it that nature can provide for you - a sense of calm, a shift in mood, an opportunity to socialise? Can you join a meetup or Facebook group which inspires and organises time in nature, perhaps sending you invites to group walks and events?

And finally...

forest-light-nature-70365.jpg

Remember; you only need 15 minutes in a green space for it to positively affect your health and your mood, and the effect can last for days. Summer’s an ideal time to go outside, so let’s make the most of it!


Anya Pearse is a Hay House Diverse Wisdom mentee, Museum of Happiness volunteer, writer and workshop leader who helps smart and sensitive individuals find relief through self-compassion, connection and communion. Learn more at LetTheLoveIn.com and sign up for her newsletter here.

Shamash