A natural state of mind

Is this busy, technological world a happy one? Kate Humble explains why we can improve our state of mind if we log off and spend more time with nature.

[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

Our vocabulary has changed so much in recent decades that our grandparents would now wonder what we were talking about. In the 1980s we got stuck in a language of acronyms, full of yuppies, dinkies and nimbyism. By the 1990s we’d become subversive, flipping “wicked” on its head and turning “mobile” from an adjective to a noun.

As we entered the new millennium, we retreated to our computers and started blogging and googling for all we were worth. Busy, busy words for a busy, busy society. Shorthand terms for those short of time. As the pace of our lives has increased, so the rate of our linguistic change has comfortably managed to jog along beside it. And where has this heady hedonism led us? We’ve made up a new phrase for that, too. The credit crunch has the ability to affect all our lives, yet, again, previous generations would have no idea what it meant. Good heavens, most of them weren’t even able to get credit in the first place.

But there’s an answer to it all and, unsurprisingly, a new word to sum it up, too. It’s called ecopsychology, and although the word may be less than 20 years old, the concept it describes is most definitely not. In a nutshell, it means that nature makes you feel good, and if that seems a rather banal and obvious statement, consider how far removed from nature so many of us have become.

In Britain, one survey last year showed that only 53% of children could correctly identify an oak leaf, and nearly one in three had no idea what a magpie looked like. Another asked children to rank their favourite ways of spending their free time: playing in the countryside came bottom.

Add to these statistics the World Health Organisation’s prediction that depression will become the second-biggest cause of ill health by 2020, and you start to wonder whether our decreasing contact with nature and increasing reliance on antidepressants are in some way connected.

It appears that they are. A number of studies around the world have shown that patients in hospital beds where the view through the window is of greenery tend to recover faster than those who look out on more industrial or urban views. Other studies have shown that in many urban environments reports of violence lessen by up to 50% when greater access to nature is built into people’s lives. There are reports of the effect of nature on children’s attention-deficit disorders, and on adults’ irritability levels. Socialisation in a community can be up to 90% higher when green spaces are available than when they are not. Stress levels go down. Crime is reduced. It’s all good stuff.

Let’s be frank. It makes sense, really. As the great Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) legend Janet Kear once wrote: “Just as you can’t sneeze with your eyes open, you can’t feed a bird from your hand without smiling.”

Meanwhile, simply walking among all that greenery gives us a certain level of exercise, which is good for us, too.

The scientific benefits of nature are increasingly being proven, but there’s an aesthetic aspect, too. The poet William Wordsworth wrote of his daffodils: “For oft, when on my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood,/They flash upon that inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude;/And then my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils.” He did not write of his oxygen intake or his neurobiological system.

Medical science is proving that nature is good for us, and this is an excellent and timely thing. Yet we are human beings, not just machines, and use human judgements to help us make our decisions. A recent poll asked whether respondents would be happy for their doctors to provide outdoor exercise instead of prescription drugs, if they thought it would work. Now, outdoor exercise is more time-consuming and requires more effort than popping a pill, yet 94% said that yes, they would be happy to accept that advice. Could it be that stirring inside us all there’s not just a medical need to spend more time in green spaces, but a spiritual one, too?

This is not about religious domains, but a connection with our natural environment that’s tucked away in our collective psyche. We are natural beings ourselves, yet we’ve transplanted ourselves from the woods and wetlands into brick boxes with tarmac links between them and shimmering screens to occupy our hours. Are we simply yearning for the world that directly gave our ancestors their life and livelihoods?

The biologist and thinker EO Wilson believes that our humanity effectively depends on how we interact with nature. “We are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms,” he wrote. “They offer the challenge and freedom innately sought.” He calls this biophilia, and it basically means love of life.

Compare this with the writings of another man. As he sits at his window looking out, he sees his wife helping his daughter put caterpillars on to fresh poplar branches, and his son drawing a picture of a tree. He contemplates his life in the midst of nature and writes: “I am more than ever convinced that I am the luckiest man I know. I say this not with smugness or self-satisfaction but because I can think of nothing sadder than to live a happy life without recognising it. Maybe I am an ostrich with my head in the sand. Maybe fate or my own or other men’s folly has all kinds of disasters in store for me, but they cannot take away these exciting and happy years. Not to acknowledge such good fortune would be inexcusable.”

This was Sir Peter Scott, the founder of WWT and a man for whom other organisms truly offered that challenge and freedom. He wrote those words in 1960, and they conclude his autobiography The Eye of the Wind. When you’ve lived a life as full of connection with wildlife as Scott’s was, and sum it up by dwelling on happiness, then you truly understand what nature can offer you.

Many have followed in his footsteps at WWT, continuing his work, visiting reserves, offering their services as volunteers and finding ways in which the outdoor life gives them untold pleasure. Those reserves, that work and those levels of happiness await us all.

Ecopsychology and biophilia are good words, but don’t just google them. Come along and find out what they mean in the real world.

Kate Humble is a vice-president of WWT.

[This article first appeared in the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s magazine Waterlife and is republished here with permission.]

Do you feel close to nature? Are too many people too removed from green spaces these days? How much time do you make to simply walk among trees or over hills, or to camp or fish? Do such experiences alter your mental outlook?

Share you thoughts and experiences on the forum.

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