Tag Archives: nature

“Humans Are Primed to Love the Natural World, But We Still Have to Cultivate It.”

Interview: Florence Williams.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is toGo outside.” I get energy and mood boost from the light, the fresh air, the exercise –and from being around nature.

I’m very lucky, as a New Yorker, because I live near Central Park, which is a beautiful, beautiful place.

A new book by Florence Williams makes me all the more certain that my resolution to “go outside” is a good idea. Her fascinating new book is The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier and More Creative.

In addition to writing The Nature Fix, Florence is also a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York TimesNew York Times MagazineNational Geographic, among other places, and she’s a fellow podcaster — she’s the writer and host of the Audible Original series, Breasts Unbound. A fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, her work focuses on the environment, health and science.

I was eager to hear what she had to say about happiness, habits, and nature.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded? 

Florence: The big takeaway is that spending time is a necessity, and not just a luxury, in order for humans to be our best selves. We’ve become disconnected from the natural world by accident – we’re busy, we need to live in cities, we’re increasingly tempted by fun and addicting technology. Now we need to put some intention into regaining the connection, for ourselves and our families, because it will help us be happier, healthier and sharper, and it will, ironically, help us build stronger bonds with each other.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

I make it a priority to walk outside at least 30 minutes a day. If it has to be on a street, I try to pick the route with the most trees. And while I’m out there, I remind myself to notice the beauty around me – to hear the birds, look at the pattern of branches against the sky, watch the buds coming in. This boosts my mood and helps my attention span for the whole day.

You say that short walks in nature cause measurable changes in our physiology. Have you found that different natural environments yield different benefits?

Definitely. Humans are primed to love the natural world, but we still have to cultivate it, and cultivate it early. Because of how and where we do this, I think there’s a lot of variation in what people respond to emotionally. For some, it’s the ocean. For others, the ocean freaks them out and it’s a sunset over a city skyline. Because I grew up in New York City, my heart starts to sing when I enter Central Park. I also love the desert and a big river rolling through it. Think about where you were happiest outside as a child, and chances are you will feel joy in landscapes that are similar.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

In addition to the 30 minutes minimum of walking, I have another one that I’ve become very attached to, and that’s walking again,  a little bit, with the dog, in the dark before bedtime. It’s quiet and dark, and I look for the moon and say hello. I’m convinced this helps me sleep better (recent studies suggest darkness before bed resets your circadian rhythm and titrates the proper release of melatonin from your brain), and it certainly makes my dog happy.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Ah, I have to admit, I’m a bit of resister. I embrace intuition rather than proscription, and then feel a bit smug about it, but that’s probably self-delusion. Fortunately, my intuition is to take good care of myself, and that means embracing healthy habits. But I allow myself wiggle room and I’m not hard on myself for messing up. Sometimes I think there’s a reason for not keeping a promise, and it’s worthwhile to dig around for that.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Yes, My dear sister-in-law, Lisa Jones, who lives in bucolic Boulder, Colorado and who hikes literally hours every day when she’s not writing brilliant books. Lisa inspires me to take bigger, longer, more bad-ass hikes, and she convinces me this will help my creativity and problem-solving in the long run. Plus she passes along cool dietary advice, like: Eat Rye!

America has a long tradition of people writing about walking in nature, from Thoreau to Bill Bryson. Where do you see yourself within this spectrum of American nature writing?

I don’t really consider my work nature writing, which can lean a bit too romantic for my taste. I have a journalist’s eye, and I like finding connections that are sometimes obscure. I’ve always been interested in the intersection of humans and the environment. I like putting people into the equation, and I like to think I bring a balance of humor and serious science and social questions about why we feel and think the way we do.

“To Cease for a Bright Hour to Be a Prisoner of This Sickly Body & to Become as Large as the World.”

“Every man that goes into the wood seems to be the first man that ever went into a wood….I feel a pain of an alien world or I am cheered with the moist, warm, glittering, budding, and melodious hour that takes down the narrow walls of my soul and extends its life and pulsation to the very horizon. That is Morning. To cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body and to become as large as the World.”

–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, March 27, 1838

Do You Have an Intense Interest in a Subject–Such as Nature?

The other night, I had a fun dinner with my law-school roommate — the roommate who told me about how she had the signature color of fuschia, if you listened to that recent episode of the Happier podcast.

I was telling her how, thanks in part to her, I’d become enchanted with idea of color; it has become my latest obsession.  (Other recent obsessions include Thomas Merton, the sense of smell.)

For her part, she said, she’d been thinking about her interest in nature. Apparently, she loves nature! Which was something I’d never known about her. So, in my happiness bully way, I tried to convince her to pursue this love — learn more, take a class, plan a trip, whatever appealed to her.

She’s thinking about it. And as a follow-up from that conversation, I sent her one of my very favorite quotations about a love of nature, from the French painter Eugene Delacroix’s brilliant Journal.

“The Natural History Museum is open to the public on Tuesdays and Fridays. Elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus; extraordinary animals! Rubens rendered them marvelously. I had a feeling of happiness as soon as I entered the place and the further I went the stronger it grew. I felt my whole being rise above commonplaces and trivialities and the petty worries of my daily life. What an immense variety of animals and species of different shapes and functions!”

Journal of Eugene Delacroix

Do you have a similar passion for the natural world? Or for color, or for stamps, or antique globes, or for anything else?

A Little Happier: Remember to Go Outside.

This is a very helpful Secret of Adulthood: Remember to go outside.

Go outside into the sunlight; light deprivation is one reason that people feel tired. Research suggests that light stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood and increase motivation.

For an extra boost, get your sunlight first thing in the morning.

Also, at least for me, unscientifically speaking, spending time outside gives a feeling of freedom, of connecting with the seasons (even when the weather isn’t ideal), of breathing fresh air, of not being so trapped by a schedule that I can’t be out in the world.

People in industrialized countries spent about 93% of their time inside; don’t forget how energizing and cheering it can be to go outdoors.

We love our puppy Barnaby for many reasons, and he definitely does encourage every member of my family to go outside more often.

What about you? Do you love to go outside, or do you have to prod yourself to make sure you do it?

 

I hope you’re enjoying the new mini-episodes. I love doing them.

Thanks, as always, to my terrific sponsor: Audible. Audible has more than 180,000 audio-books and spoken-word audio products. Get a free 30-day trial at Audible.com/happier.  Your first book is free! You can choose from a huge selection — including my books, Better Than Before or The Happiness Project. I’m the reader for both of them.

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Happier listening!

A Little Happier: Stressed? Try This.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood, and one that never fails me: When I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself.

What are your healthy treats? We should all load ourselves with healthy treats! (Pictured: my idea of a healthy treat. Not for everyone, but works for me.)

I hope you’re enjoying the new mini-episodes. I love doing them.

Want to get in touch? I love hearing from listeners: