“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
One hundred and sixty years ago, in this magazine, Henry David Thoreau lamented that humankind was losing contact with nature. “Here is this vast, savage, hovering mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty, and such affection for her children, as the leopard,” he wrote, “and yet we are so early weaned from her breast to society, to that culture which is exclusively an interaction of man on man.”
[From the June 1862 issue: Walking]
The situation is undoubtedly worse today; after all, the percentage of Americans working outdoors fell from 90 percent at the beginning of the 19th century to less than 20 percent at the close of the 20th century. We show the same pattern in our pursuit of leisure: According to the Outdoor Foundation, Americans went on 1 billion fewer outings in nature in 2018 compared with 2008. Today, 85 percent of adults say they spent more time outside when they were kids than children do today.
Perhaps you know intuitively that this is bad news for happiness and health in general. But you might not have connected a lack of contact with nature with stress and anxiety in your own life. If you are falling away from nature, you are almost certainly lowering your well-being and increasing your unhappiness. The remaining weeks of summer are a perfect opportunity to turn things around and get a fresh start in the fresh air.
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The trend away from nature over the past few centuries, and especially the past few decades, has straightforward explanations. To begin with, the world’s population has urbanized, so nature is less at hand. According to U.S. census data, 6.1 percent of the American population resided in urban areas in 1800; in 2000, 79 percent did. Second, no matter where we live, technology is displacing the outdoors in our attention: A 2017 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives noted that screen time is rising rapidly for all age groups—adults averaged 10 hours and 39 minutes a day in 2016—even as hunting, fishing, camping, and children’s outdoor play have declined substantially.
Maybe this all sounds eerily familiar to you. Perhaps you are an urbanite with an indoor job, tied to your devices all day and night—and besides walking from your house to the car or train, you haven’t spent serious time in nature in months or even years. If so, you are probably suffering some noticeable malaise, such as stress, anxiety, or even depression. In one study from 2015, researchers assigned people to walk in either nature or an urban setting for 50 minutes. The nature walkers had lower anxiety, better mood, and better working memory. They were also much less likely to agree with statements such as “I often reflect on episodes of my life that I should no longer concern myself with.”
[Read: The way we talk about nature is getting weirder]
Exposure to nature can even make you less concerned about the opinions of others. In 2008, researchers found that people who walked in a city for 15 minutes were 39 percent more likely to agree with the statement, “Right now, I am concerned about the way I present myself” than people who spent the same amount of time walking in nature.
Maybe you know that you might be happier spending more time in nature but think you can’t afford it in the context of your work. In truth, you probably can’t afford not to: A lack of nature can lower the quality of your work. In a 2012 study in the journal PLOS One, researchers showed that four days immersed in nature without technology increased people’s creativity and problem-solving abilities by about 50 percent.
If nature is absent from your life, you are likely unhappier, more neurotic, and less productive than necessary. I strongly recommend that you redress this matter as soon as possible—this summer, perhaps—and then incorporate new protocols into your life.
First, if you are taking a vacation this year, spend as much time outdoors as possible. My own favorite vacation consists of walking for days on end—I sleep indoors but am outside 16 hours a day. It energizes me like nothing else. Even sleeping under the stars, without all the attendant trekking, might help. I have a friend who lost his job in the 2007–09 financial crisis and couldn’t afford a traditional vacation that year. Instead, he camped in his own backyard for two weeks. Maybe this sounds ridiculous to you, but he talks about it with deep fondness and still does it from time to time.
Second, use nature to recalibrate your body along with your mind. Researchers have found that exposure to natural light (but not artificial light) synchronizes your internal circadian clock to the rising and setting of the sun. Ditch your devices and even artificial lights for a few days, and sleeping naturally might be easier than ever. Similarly, some small experiments have found that when people are in physical contact with the earth in ways as simple as walking barefoot outdoors—known as “earthing” or “grounding” the human body—their self-reported health and mood can improve. If you want to feel better, take your shoes off and spend the day outside; it might help.
Third, build contact with the outdoors into your daily schedule as much as you can. During the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, I started walking after lunch and dinner, following a pattern found in so-called Blue Zones, where people tend to live with good health into old age. I quickly found that it calmed me down and helped me focus on what truly matters: my faith, family, and friendships, and the meaning in my work. I live in an urban area on the outskirts of Boston, but I have routes near my home (not too far from Thoreau’s old stomping ground, as it happens) that maximize my views of nature, including parks and even a small forest. Not everyone has a forest nearby—as a general rule, just maximize the green where you walk.
Maybe you’re simply not an outdoors person. “Humans created buildings for a reason,” my father once reminded me when I suggested that we go camping. The weather, the bugs, the lack of bathrooms and comfy beds—I get it. But you might be underestimating the benefits and overestimating the discomfort. Research from 2011 in the journal Psychological Science shows, for example, that people think they will enjoy walking in nature less than they actually do.
[Read: How microdosing on nature can help with stress]
If you still need convincing, maybe a few more words from Thoreau will help. “I was walking in a meadow, the source of a small brook, when the sun at last, just before setting, after a cold, gray day, reached a clear stratum in the horizon,” he wrote in 1862. In this ordinary experience, he found the sublime, as if he were walking to the Holy Land—“till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.”