One day last summer my wife and I jumped in the car and took off with no destination in mind. We just turned where we felt like turning and wound up on a beach we'd never seen before. It was the middle of a weekday in an out-of-the-way place, so the beach was deserted. Just us. The sun was beaming down. The beach was protected by lots of islands offshore, so there were only tiny ripples for waves. It was very quiet except for the sound of some insects.
At one point I stopped and stood there feeling a strange pleasure. I felt good all over for no reason. I felt relaxed down to my bones. I felt so good, and so suddenly, it was dramatic and noticeable. It was like I was buzzed on something, but I wasn't. I just felt good.
I live in a fairly big city. I don't often spend much time in natural settings. And simply hearing insects rather than the rumbling sounds of a freeway made me kind of high.
I'm not the only one to experience this, of course. Michael Cohen, an educator who runs Project NatureConnect in Roche Harbor, Washington, takes people on "therapeutic vacations" where he tries to recreate the conditions of a hunter-gatherer tribe. He reports that many psychological problems — anxiety, chronic tension, eating disorders — disappear under these conditions. He postulates that many of our psychological dysfunctions are caused by our isolation from natural settings. We spend too much time indoors in artificial, man-made environments. It's unnatural and unhealthy.
Edward O. Wilson, a Pulitzer-Prize winning sociobiologist from Harvard, wrote something similar. He said people actually have a physical, genetically-driven need to experience natural environments. He called it "biophilia," the love of life.
At first these ideas may seem farfetched, but some scientific evidence supports the idea. A team of researchers, for example, gave a blood test to a small village in Samoa. These were people living very close to nature. The researchers found an unusually low level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in these people. At least it was low by our standards. In fact, that low level should probably be "normal."
An anthropologist was going to do a study on depression in New Guinea. He chose the Kaluli people. The problem is, he couldn't find any depression. They didn't have such a thing. Again, the Kaluli lived in a natural setting. No cars. No machines. No clocks. No leaf blowers.
Even pictures of natural settings make a difference. In an experiment in Sweden, heart surgery patients in hospital rooms had either a blank wall, an abstract painting, or a photograph of a natural scene involving water (a picture of a waterfall, for example). Those with the natural scene had less anxiety after the surgery, needed less pain medication, and spent fewer days in the hospital.
So here's a method to relax tense muscles that might not have occurred to you. When you feel overdosed on stress chemicals, get outdoors — not in a paved, manicured park, although that would be better than nothing, but in an actual natural setting, with no people around, except maybe someone you know and love. Or by yourself. Or with your dog. It doesn't matter what you do there. Take a walk. Find a comfortable place just to sit. Go fishing. Paddle a canoe. Have something to eat. Take a day every once in awhile and experience the natural world. I think you might be surprised at how relaxing and rejuvenating it is.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.