Friday, October 25, 2013

Dirt, bugs, trees, me

When I was little, my parents were frequently shooing my sister and me outside to play with the neighbor’s kids. For hours we’d roam the woods and fields, build tree forts, explore the stream and catch frogs and bugs. Now I’m the age when I mull over how I’d like to raise my possible future children. Based on my childhood and what I’ve learned, I want my (hypothetical) kids to get muddy, help me garden, and play in forests and fields. I look forward to accompanying them as they experience the delight and wonder that the natural world can evoke. In general, getting dirt under my fingernails and spending time outdoors, away from traffic and urban hustle, makes me feel more alive, calm and resilient. I know what it feels like to crave quiet, green spaces after accidents and stressful life experiences. Poets, philosophers, psychologists and I (!) have long recognized the therapeutic benefits of nature for physical and emotional health. Some of these benefits from nature turn out to be measurable, but many of the harder to measure benefits have not been given the attention they deserve.

Quality time with sunflowers when I was a kid
A freshly minted multidisciplinary review (yes, I am a co-author) is a guide to the myriad intangible benefits to human well-being from knowing, perceiving, interacting and living with nature. Published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, this synthesis is, to our knowledge, the most comprehensive overview of this topic. In our paper entitled Humans and Nature: How Knowing and Experiencing Nature Affect Well-Being, we review literature on the intangible benefits from nature to our physical health, mental health, spirituality, certainty/sense of control, learning/capabilities, inspiration and fulfillment of imagination, sense of place, identity/autonomy, connectedness/belonging, and subjective overall well-being.

Intuitively, I recognize that nature matters in dimensions that can not be easily measured. This synthesis documents many of these sometimes abstract but critical dimensions. My co-authors and I recognize that nature has a darker side (diseases, parasites, insect infestations, etc.), but our holistic review of over 200 peer-reviewed articles from a variety of academic fields marshals substantial evidence that thinking about and being in ecosystems, both “wilder” and more domestic ones, is good for our brains, bodies and psyches. 

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