Author and journalist Florence Williams’ latest book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative explores how being outdoors can improve your health, prevent depression and strengthen relationships. Charlotte Ward talks to her
1. How can nature improve our health?
Nature is incredible and has an immediate effect on us — we feel less fatigued, sharper and fresher. The benefits you can measure are things like heart rate variability and the way the nervous system quietens in nature. It seems to get out us of ‘fight or flight’ mode and relaxes us, which means our digestion works better and we are more at ease with the people in our lives.
It can also have profound effects on our mental health. People seem to spend less time having negative thoughts when they are on a nature walk. Researchers in Finland say if you can get outside for a minimum of five hours a month, you can prevent mild depression. This is really significant in Westernized countries where depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels.
2. Have you always had a connection to nature?
As a child I was fortunate to live a few blocks from Central Park in New York, so I was there every day growing up. Fredrick Law Olmstead, who designed the park, was such a genius as he created a nature space in the city where you felt like you could get away. I also used to go camping and canoeing every summer with my father. I loved being in the wilderness.
3. Why are you such a big believer that encouraging children to enjoy nature sets them up for life?
It’s a gift you can give your children that will last a lifetime. When kids get to run around outside and climb trees it helps them develop gross motor skills. It’s good for their imagination and creativity and also helps with things such as social and emotional regulation. If you help them find that nature connection early, they’ll have it forever.
4. The growth of technology means time spent outside is in decline. Should we be concerned?
It’s a really insidious threat. I think we all know intuitively that when we spend a lot of time on our devices we get a little grumpy. We have a lot of anxiety around technology now and how much our kids use it.
5. In your book, you describe the nature withdrawal you experienced moving from mountain life in Colorado to the city in Washington DC. Was it a shock how much it affected you?
It was a shock. I could feel the withdrawal very overtly. I was surprised by how powerful a change in landscape was for my mood and psyche. That is what launched my book journey. I wanted to find out why that had a strong impact. I became really interested in how our external environment seems to affect our internal landscape.
6. How did you start researching the book?
It was quite serendipitous. I’m a contributing editor at Outside and they asked me to write about the science behind the nature brain connection. I went to Japan to learn about forest bathing and how researchers there were seeing measurable impacts of nature on blood pressure and cortisol and stress levels. There was new exciting science happening and it sparked my interest. I was fortunate to get another assignment from National Geographic to discover more about what was going on. It became clear there was enough for a book.
7. You talk about the ‘nature pyramid’. Can you explain it?
The idea is we need things from all levels of the pyramid. At the base is our nearby nature where we spend most of our time – the good views, green school yards, and trees in our cities. Next, we need more immersive visits to parks and woods and to spend half a day outside once in a while. At the top of the pyramid, are the rarer, but critical and special exposures to really wild places — the experiences we can access at critical times in our lives when we are going through change, grief, trauma, or need to figure things out about ourselves. The wilderness is a great place to do that and has been for so many cultures, but we’ve really lost sight of that.
8. What surprised you the most during your research?
I was surprised by how nature increases performances on tests of creativity and helps our relationships. When we experience something awe-inspiring it can make us feel connected to the people around us, and to our communities, so experiencing the wilderness is really good for civilization. I was heartened that we can learn to cultivate awe, even in a city. The way to do that is to be more mindful. To take out our ear buds, pay attention to the patterns in leaves and trees, to listen to birdsong, and train our minds to go into that sensory space. We can really learn to be present in our environment and get the restorative benefits.
9. Which countries get it right?
I think all countries around the world are challenged. We are seeing a mass migration of humans to cities and a migration indoors. It’s happening everywhere. In Northern and Western Europe there has been a lot of effort to medicalize nature and incorporate time in nature to treat depression. In places like Japan there are park prescription programs and in South Korea forests are being managed with human help as therapy, not just for timber and recreation. There are about 75 park prescription programs around the US but it’s still very small.
10. What can we all do to get our nature fix?
Just pay attention to where you feel great. Some people love the forest, others the ocean, and some love hanging out in their gardens. Looking at incredible sunsets, the sky, and the ocean can be very powerful and awe-inspiring. It doesn’t have to be green nature and you don’t have to be fully immersed. I would encourage people to get to know their local plants and animals, visit zoos and to think about incorporating nature into vacations. Be mindful when you are outside, learn what speaks to you, and spend more time there.