Taking the Nature Pill

April 24, 2019

We’re constantly flooded with articles about how to reduce or control stress in our multi-tasking, demanding lives; how to achieve “balance” and wellbeing in daily life. Such articles and books typically list five or so steps to achieving it all. In truth, none of them work or are lasting. That’s why there’s a continuous market for them: people keep looking for the next one that promises the same thing, but better.

More importantly, these “solutions” have to fail because they don’t deal with what generates so much stress and conflict to begin with, in work, relationships, and in our overall way of life in today’s culture. And therefore they can’t identify what does truly enable greater wellbeing and fulfillment.

That failing brings to mind something the 18th Century Zen poet Hakuin wrote: “Not knowing how near the truth is, we seek it far away.” That the truth may be right in front of our eyes and easily accessible is highlighted by evidence from two illuminating recent studies about stress and wellbeing. Though unrelated, they show what can relieve stress in a simple way. And they point to what could heal the deeper, pervasive unhappiness and dissatisfaction so many people experience in today’s culture.

A Nature Pill?

The first study found that just taking twenty minutes during the day to be in contact with nature significantly lowers your stress hormone levels. That’s all? Just sitting outside where you feel contact with nature, or taking a walk in a natural environment, has a demonstrable impact?

According to MaryCarol Hunter, the lead author of the study from the University of Michigan, “…for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, was able to conclude that a twenty-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. And if you spent a little more time immersed in a nature experience, 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking, cortisol levels dropped at their greatest rate.

The research method, described here, was able to determine the duration of what they termed a “nature pill” in order to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Hunter explained that the researchers were able to “…identify the optimal duration of a nature pill, no matter when or where it is taken, and under the normal circumstances of modern life, with its unpredictability and hectic scheduling.”

So there’s a simple “practice” that works. No need for 5 or 6 steps. Go try it.

The Experience of “Oneness” and Wellbeing

Why that “nature pill” can reduce stress becomes clear when you take a look at another study. It found that people who believe in “oneness”—the view that everything in the world is interconnected and interdependent—have greater life satisfaction than those who don’t. And that’s regardless of whether they belong to a religion or don’t.

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