How spending time outside improves our mental health

reconnecting with the outdoors alpine lakes
Research is emerging that demonstrates getting off the couch and reconnecting with the outdoors can have a lasting positive impact on our psychological well-being.Michael Deeter

This summer, as COVID-19 began to loosen its vice-like grip and society seemed to emerge from the proverbial wreckage, we came to appreciate the correlation between mental health and the social connections we had previously taken for granted. Now, new variants of the disease are emerging and mandates are being reinstituted across the country. This is leading to a surge in the ongoing mental health crisis, which is exhibiting all-time highs of depression and anxiety among adults in the United States.

The cognitive ill-effects of coping with the pandemic stem from stressors placed on individuals, and in a larger sense society, for a sustained duration. Western medicine has come to rely heavily on pharmaceuticals such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, as a standalone treatment modality or in conjunction with counseling — such as cognitive behavioral therapy — to treat depression and anxiety. While the use of medication and counseling are legitimate courses of treatment for these issues, the answer to our happiness may be much simpler. 

Research is emerging that demonstrates getting off the couch and reconnecting with the outdoors can have a lasting positive impact on our psychological well-being. Neuroscientists believe that interacting with nature activates an area within our brains called the ventral striatum, and in combination with neuroplasticity, can result in significantly happier human beings. The ventral striatum plays an important role in emotional responses, such as pleasure and behavioral motivation. A study reported in The Journal of Neuroscience concluded that sustained activation of the ventral striatum directly correlated with improved mental health and decreased production of the stress hormone cortisol. 

friluftsliv open-air living norwegian culture northern lights
Friluftsliv, or open-air living, is a key part of Norwegian culture that dates back to the mid-nineteenth century.Michael Deeter

Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to create new synaptic networks based on recent experiences. This implies that we can continue to develop and mold our brain throughout life, giving us the ability to change dysfunctional thought patterns. This is a good thing, given that exposure to positive environmental surroundings activates the ventral striatum and can have a lasting impact on mental health through these newly developed neural pathways.

Taking advantage of the ventral striatum and the brain’s plasticity is not as hard as you may think. Take for example Norway, whose tradition of friluftsliv, or open-air living, has helped to land the nation in fifth place on the United Nations 2020 World Happiness Report. Friluftsliv — pronounced free-loofs-leaf — itself is not an endeavor, but a simple lifestyle choice by which one spends time outdoors connecting with nature. The concept of friluftsliv is at the core of the Norwegian culture, with its roots dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. 

Another case in point comes from Japan in the form of shinrin-yoku, commonly referred to as forest bathing in the West. Similar to friluftsliv, shinrin-yoku is the act of spending time in nature. Started in the 1980s by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries as a means of motivating people to briefly disconnect and take in the natural environment, shinrin-yoku quickly caught on. Not quite hiking or a static meditative practice, but somewhere in between, practitioners take leisurely walks under the forest canopy as a form of meditation and to soak in nature. 

Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, of Japan’s Chiba University, tested the effects of shinrin-yoku on mood states in a group of study participants. The study found that there were significant decreases in anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue in participants, as well as increased vigor, when in natural environments compared to urban settings. 

shinrin-yoku forest bathing japanese practice
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese practice we also know as “forest bathing.”Michael Deeter

The concept of using the health benefits of nature has begun to gain traction in the United Kingdom as well, where Shetland Island health officials have been advocating what they call “nature prescriptions” as a means to combat the emerging mental health crisis. This initiative allows primary care physicians to prescribe time in the outdoors for their patients. They have developed a calendar with suggested season appropriate events for patients, which includes borrowing a dog and taking it for a walk in March, following a bumblebee in July and appreciating a cloud in October, amongst many other activities. The calendar is available via PDF.

While this information is very encouraging, theories behind the therapeutic benefits of nature seem untenable to those living in inner cities with limited time or access to wild places. The good news is that any natural space will suffice and small doses throughout the week are all our brains require. Mathew P. White and fellow researchers at the University of Exeter in England, reported in Nature that spending a cumulative 120 minutes a week will yield sufficient benefits to one’s psychological well-being. The study included almost 20,000 participants from diverse backgrounds using residential greenspaces, and other available urban natural spaces.

With the mounting evidence pointing towards our mental health being directly tied to nature, it stands to reason that spending time outdoors is imperative. By increasing access and motivating people to explore nature, the benefits are two-fold. The obvious being a healthier and happier society. The less obvious is that with more people gaining an appreciation for the natural world, there may be a greater push to preserve our wild places for future generations.

MIKE DEETER lives in Northern Colorado with his family where he works as a physician assistant. When he isn’t working he enjoys spending time in the backcountry, photographing, and writing.