The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
Taking time to notice nature is one of the most important things you can do for your health—and for understanding your place in the beautiful world around you.
As human beings, we are inextricably linked to and a part of nature. Our senses are the medium through which we experience our outer world, yet we are often unconscious of our senses and nature’s impact on us. When we think about why nature is important to us, the most widely perceived benefit is aesthetic. Most of us can appreciate the beauty of fall colors or summer’s green. But the biodynamic interaction between humans and nature is much more complex than appreciating the pleasing sights around us.
In 1977, Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel prize in chemistry for his theory on dissipative structures. His work explains that we humans are just like other open organisms in nature. We’re energy transformers—constantly taking in energy (through our senses, our breath, and our food), transforming it, and putting it back out there. When there’s a disruption to the internal process of energy transformation, we get sick.
Our mindful awareness of our role in the processes of energy transformation is increasingly important. Pondering how to be the best you for yourself, other humans, and the planet likely will reveal the need to take your relationship with nature more seriously.
Environmental fitness is the baseline condition needed for human health. We all need clean air, clean water, and clean food that’s free of toxicants. Unfortunately, access to baseline health isn’t equitable in our world. Luckily, every step we take to notice nature and advocate for baseline health is a step towards reclaiming environmental fitness—for the planet and for all people. We can purchase foods that are locally sourced, in season, and organic when possible. We can advocate for food banks and organizations that help those in need and encourage them to do the same. We can support organizations, policies, and programs that support green initiatives. In turn, we can all benefit from better health and be clean, efficient energy transformers.
Wellness can be further enhanced beyond this baseline level by increasing engagement with nature. Even brief encounters with green spaces and simply observing nature through passive viewing are scientifically linked to improved well-being. Research has demonstrated the positive association between nature engagement and lower blood pressure, lower chronic disease, physiological stress moderation, improved mental health, and extended life spans. Neuroscientists are also learning about nature’s role in the healing process, with studies showing nature aids in physical and emotional healing.
Taking time during the day to be in nature—or to simply pause and notice what you see, hear, smell and feel when observing the natural world—can have an impact. Helping others do the same is even better. Hosting a walking meeting, pointing out a beautiful view, or taking someone with limited transportation options to a park are great opportunities to foster human connections with nature. From a community-building perspective, civic ecology can lead to social engagement and connection, perhaps improving social resilience.
Clearly, we are just on the cusp of acknowledging and honoring the value of nature in modern society. Young people and activists are advocating fervently for policies that prioritize and protect our planet. The questions are, what’s your role, what can you do, and where do we go from here?
If you’re interested in learning more about optimizing your well-being and your interaction with nature, consider joining me for a workshop at West Virginia Botanical Garden or for a Wellbeing Retreat. I’d love to see you there!