I didn’t think that I would get any sort of a vacation this year, but it turns out that we are going to squeeze in a quick last minute trip to Yosemite and Kings Canyon. I plan to do some hiking while I’m there and, evidently, I’m going to feel happier for it.
No big surprise, a new study shows that walking or hiking in nature can bring us inner peace, joy, and happiness.
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with depression.
“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
More than half of the world’s population lives in urban settings and that is forecast to jump to a whopping 70 percent within a few decades. It’s no coincidence that just as urbanization and disconnection from nature have grown dramatically, so have mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. In fact, those who live in the city have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders as compared to people in rural areas. People born and raised in cities are twice as likely to develop schizophrenia.
Yikes! However, if you happen to live in a city, don’t feel discouraged. A simple stroll in Central Park or any nearby hiking area will help. Studies show that even a limited dose of nature like a short walk or even looking outside through a window is good for us. Although I live in the desert – nowhere near a forest – my husband and I have had fun exploring some of the local nature trails. This last winter we hiked the Ladder Canyon Trail/Painted Canyon in Mecca.
It’s worth the effort. Nature can improve your mental state, lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone), and increase your energy. The great outdoors can even provide a surge of creative energy. That’s why you’ll often see people in scenic spots with their easels or writing poems.
People have long known that natural environments are good for us. Clear back in 1857, S.H. Hammond wrote in the book, Wild Northern Scenes; Sporting Adventures with the Rifle and the Rod:
“Hurrah! hurrah! We are in the country, the glorious country! Outside of the thronged streets… away from the heated atmosphere of the city, loaded with the smoke and dust, and gasses of furnaces, and the ten thousand manufacturies of villainous smells. We are beyond even the meadows and green fields. We are here alone with nature, surrounded by old primeval things. Tall forest trees, mountain and valley are on the right hand and on the left. Before us, stretching away for miles, is a beautiful lake, its waters calm and placid, giving back the bright heavens, the old woods, the fleecy clouds that drift across the sky, from away down in its quiet depths.”
Centuries later, don’t you feel some of those same emotions when you’re hiking in the forest or camping under the stars? You can feel all that negativity, anxiety, and stress just drain away.
I realize that not everyone can take a week-long vacation to camp in the woods and explore nature trails. Maybe it’s not financially possible or you have physical limitations that prevent you from hiking. However, everyone can insert a little nature into their lives.
If you need a few ideas, here are a few simple and easy ways to incorporate nature into your life:
Stargaze and watch the heavens light up.
Spread a blanket over the grass and take normal activities such as reading, eating a meal, or simply discussing how your day went with hubby outdoors.
Build or buy a bird feeder or a fountain and watch the birds splash, play, and frolic.
Visit a Farmer’s Market.
Watch a sunrise or sunset.
Or if you are healthy and able, take it from nature writers and explorers like John Muir who have known this secret for centuries.
Go take a hike! Of course, I mean that in the nicest way possible!