What if I told you there was a simple, low-cost intervention that fights depression and stress, boosts productivity, tunes up cognitive function, increases self control, and even improves physical measures of health like blood pressure?

No doubt you'd race to pick up this pill, potion, or behavioral change. But according to a fascinating recent article by Jill Suttie for the Greater Good Science Center, getting this impressive array of benefits requires pretty much no effort at all and costs a grand total of zero dollars. All you need to do is spend more time outside in nature.

"Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people," Suttie writes before launching into a long rundown of the latest research findings. Here, in brief, are three ways she says nature can give us a powerful lift, according to the latest science. 

Happier

If you're prone to brooding about your troubles, research suggests that getting out in nature can help you calm your mind and get over your gloomy fixations. Both studies that asked participants to self report their negative thoughts and those that looked for biological markers of unhealthy rumination using brain scans found that, for clearing the mental cobwebs and boosting happiness, a walk in nature definitively beats a walk in an urban environment.

Less stressed

Most of us have heard about the research showing exercise is an excellent stress buster, but if you really want to go for the maximum level of chill, try working out in nature. "In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban center (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures," reports Suttie.

What did the results show? "Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress), and reported better moods and less anxiety, than those who walked in urban settings."

More creative

In our wired world, our attention is constantly pulled in a million different directions. That's often terrible for your productivity, but scattering of your mental resources can be ruinous for your creativity as well. Spending time in the mountains or at the seaside helps us regain our focus -- and our capacity for innovation.

One study found "hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike--in fact, 47 percent more," according to Suttie. Other studies concur, demonstrating that time in the natural world restores attention and boosts creativity. (Even adding green plants to your office has been shown to boost creativity.)

How much time have you spent in nature this week? Is it enough?

Published on: Mar 10, 2016
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