We Are Wired To Be Outside

Science is demonstrating what we intuitively know: Nature makes us happy.

When we first see Elizabeth Bennett, in the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice, she is walking through a field, surrounded by birdsong and trees. Nature, for Jane Austen’s heroines, is always a source of solace and inspiration. And as Florence Williams shows in her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, modern technology is now revealing what goes on in our brains when we step outdoors—and why nature is so good for us. [Read Williams's National Geographic story "This Is Your Brain on Nature."]

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When National Geographic caught up with Williams by phone in Washington, D.C., she explained why even a house plant can make us feel good, why the practice of “forest bathing” is now supported by the Japanese government, and how trees can lower the murder rate in our cities.

You open your book with a simple question: “What makes people happy? Does place matter, or not so much?” Tell us about the Mappiness project—and what you call “our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors.”

The Mappiness project was developed in the U.K. by a happiness researcher called George MacKerron. It’s a brilliant idea, which tries to capture in real time what people are doing and how it makes them feel. I downloaded this app onto my phone and used it for about a year. The way it works is, it pings you at random times a couple of times a day and gives you a list of options. Are you driving, doing childcare, cooking, hanging out with friends? Are you outside or inside and how are you feeling? Like, “I feel happy, not so happy.”

At the end of the year I got my data, which showed how I was spending my time and which activities made me feel a certain way. I try to spend a lot of time outside, make an effort to exercise. But I was shocked at how few times the app caught me doing those things; and how often it caught me doing things that didn’t give me a lot of satisfaction. Things like commuting or doing chores.

One of the things I found out was that most people are not that happy when they are at work. They’re happiest when they are on vacations, with friends, making or listening to music. One of the surprising finds was that they’re also very, very happy when they are outside.

The epidemic dislocation from the outdoors, as I call it, has been occurring for the last several decades but has gone very little remarked upon. Children, adults, we are all spending vastly less amounts of time outside than we used to. For example, 70 percent of today’s mothers in the U.S. recalled playing outdoors every day as children but only 26 percent of them say their kids play outside daily. That’s a huge change. After school, kids used to come home, meet up with their friends, and go run around the neighborhood. I used to do that. Now kids are totally scheduled. If they are outside, it’s with adults in some organized sporting activity. There’s not that free, exploratory play that a lot of experts think children need in order to gain a strong sense of themselves and learn social skills and problem solving.

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