Nature and Joy – Our need for nature

Woodland in Scotland

Have you ever watched a sunset and felt an overwhelming emotion almost bursting to be free?  A sudden and involuntary feeling that you cannot quite fully understand?  Possibly the stirring of spring bringing you hope, the little shoots and sprouts breaking through the ground reminding you that the world is alive.

I have been thinking of these feelings for a while now and contemplating their meaning, not only to me, but to us as human beings.  I know that being outdoors and experiencing nature first hand is something that brings me a great deal of happiness and that it is good for me, both physically and mentally.  It has led me to research the subject deeper to find the science behind it.  I have also been reading Michael McCarthy’s “The Moth Snowstorm – Nature and Joy” which discusses using these intense feelings as new way of looking at nature and as a defense for our natural world.

McCarthy discusses the strategies used to date to try and protect and defend our planet, including attributing monetary worth to ‘ecosystem services’ to justify protecting it.  Unfortunately most of these ideas have failed to provide the protection needed and the world is threatened as never before.  Therefore he proposes that it is time for a different approach, along with sustainable development and ecosystem services, that we should offer up its joy, its deep meaning to us.

Snowdrops – Galanthus nivalis

He describes the feelings he has experienced when witnessing bird song, the first blossom of the year , the sight of a Brimstone butterfly and of mad March Hares.  All of which bring an intense feeling of Joy.  He writes about the startling feeling of emotion, of delight, and of solace with a passion that I have felt for many years, but had not known how to describe it.  It seems very fitting to use the word Joy, for that is what it is.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves – John Muir

We live in a world focused on technology, disconnected from nature.   It fills our everyday lives, at work and at home, from contacting loved ones and friends on social media, to making business contacts and progressing our careers.  The average millennial picks up their phone a staggering 150 times a day, with children aged five to sixteen spending an average of six and a half hours a day in front of a screen.

Modern society has separated people from their natural world, the benefits of nature are unseen, undervalued and in decline.  Unfortunately our disconnection to nature is considered to be one of the major problems facing nature conservation today.

Hazel catkins

The average person will spend around two hours checking social media every day, we spend forty hours a week working and 92% of our time is spent indoors.  It isn’t just adults either, in 1915 children regularly roamed alone 6 miles from their homes. Today the average roaming range is just 300 yards and this is accompanied by adults.  A case study on the disconnection with nature of children by the Wildlife Trusts in 2015 discovered that fewer than 1 in 10 children play in wild places, compared to a generation ago.  It also showed that fewer than 60% have never seen a Peacock butterfly, 50% have never found frogspawn and 37% have never seen a Hedgehog.  Children no longer have the opportunity to play freely in nature.  This is something that has deeply troubled me, that some children have not discovered the joy that is felt when seeing our wildlife up close.  The feeling I had as a young girl sitting on my back door step watching hedgehogs snuffling around our garden, something that is a rare sight these days.

Hedgehog – Erinaceus europaeus

Have you left the house to go for a walk feeling tired and stressed, only to return feeling invigorated and relaxed?  

It is now widely known and scientifically proven that spending time outside in nature is good for your mental health and your well-being, something that few nature lovers would argue with.   A study conducted during The Wildlife Trusts ’30 days of wild’ challenge has shown that there was a scientifically significant increase in people’s health, happiness and their connection to nature, not just throughout the 30 days but sustained for several months after the challenge had been completed.

In Japan the practice of ‘Shinrin yoku’ aka ‘forest bathing’ is supported by the Japanese government.  In Finland, public health officials now recommend that citizens get five hours a month, minimum, in the woods in order to stave off depression.  Spending time outdoors nurtures our “natural neurons” and sparks our natural creativity.  It is time that here in Great Britain we start to recognise the importance of time in nature.

Buttercup field – Lake District

We are in fact hardwired to love and to need nature. 

Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst, coined the term ‘biophilia’ and described it as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive”.  Edward. O. Wilson, an American biologist, also used the term to describe “the tendency of humans to focus on and to affiliate with nature and other lifeforms”.  McCarthy describes these feelings as being “lodged deep in our tissues”, before living in towns and cities, we were farmers for five hundred generations, before that hunter gatherers with the natural world a part of us and us a part of it, “the legacy cannot be done away with”.

Interacting with and spending time in nature, experiencing and appreciating it can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.  It can even help people fully recover from illness and all of us can benefit from feeling happier and healthier as a result of spending more time in nature.  Research has already shown that exposure to nature can lower your blood pressure, reduce respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, improve vitality and mood, and restore attention capacity and mental fatigue.  It could even extend your life by the equivalent of five years.  Feeling a part of nature has been shown to significantly correlate to feelings of life satisfaction, meaningfulness, mindfulness and happiness.

Winding woodland path – Norway

And it’s a reciprocal relationship because as important as nature has been shown for our health and happiness, our interactions with the natural world are just as important for protecting nature and the environment.

“The natural world is not separate from us, it is part of us.  It is as much a part of us as our capacity for language; we are bonded to it still, however hard it may be to perceive the union in the tumult of modern urban life.  Yet the union can be found, the union of ourselves and nature, in the joy which nature can spark and fire in us” – Michael McCarthy

So this weekend, why not reconnect with nature?  Take a walk in your local woodland, nature reserve or take the time to sit and enjoy the birds in your garden, take a closer look at the sleeping trees you may just find that spring is stirring again.  Experience the joy of nature for yourself.