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We’ve discussed the “nature-deficit disorder” running rampant throughout contemporary society before. Kids are more likely to control characters in video games who explore vast outdoor worlds (and complain about the graphics “not being realistic enough”) rather than get out and explore the real world themselves (which has excellent graphics, a pretty snazzy physics engine, and killer AI). Adults are likely to go entire days without stopping to smell a flower, pluck a leaf, caress a blade of grass, or even see a shred of foliage. We’ve also written about some of the incredible health benefits that occur once people correct that deficit and go forest bathing, or hiking, or commiserating with animals, or even planting a small garden on their property. In other words, a lack of nature seems to cause physical and mental health problems, while an exposure to nature seems to improve physical and mental health.
What’s going on here?
If you look at things through the lens of evolution, you notice that we’re doing things differently than we’ve ever done before. People live in suburbs or urban centers. Rural communities are shrinking, urban sprawl is widening. Green space is disappearing. And we’re suffering. A lack of nature is incredibly unhealthy. Being in and around leaves and trees and sand and bugs and dirt and desert and all the rest is the natural state of the animal known as man. It’s home. It’s in our blood and in our genes. We might have adapted to spending lots of time indoors, but not completely. The evidence is all around us, if you just pay attention:
The young child who runs around the park like a chicken with his head removed just to do it.
The sullen teen, whose parents drag him kicking and screaming to the redwoods for a hike, who has to leave behind his iPhone, who enjoys himself despite his best efforts to the contrary.
That feeling when you walk through the grass with bare feet as the sun dips below the horizon and you’re hit with a flood of purples and pinks, where if you didn’t know better you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was dawn or dusk.
And finally, the office worker who goes on vacation to Costa Rica, does nothing but sit on the beach at the edge of a jungle teeming with howler monkeys and impossibly brightly-colored birds for two weeks, and comes back healthier, happier, stress-free, and down ten pounds.
Yeah, for a great many people, work stinks. Actually, let’s put that a little differently: For a great many people, indoor work stinks. What if it didn’t have to be like that? What if you could work outside, commune with nature as you typed, feel the grass underfoot as you brainstorm, and hear not the drone of the overhead lighting but rather the chirp of the bird, the caw of the crow, and the overpowering stillness of the outdoors? There’s very little direct research dealing with the effect of working outside versus indoors, but I think we can make some predictions based on the considerable evidence for the benefits of being outside in general.
Unfortunately, the benefits of working outdoors aren’t always obvious. What does your boss care if you feel more relaxed when you take your work outside? If it doesn’t translate to improved earnings, the higher-ups generally aren’t going to take it into account. They might care on a personal level, but there is no way to accurately or reliably quantify the benefits to the business. Or if you’re the boss, either of employees or yourself, why should you want to switch everything up and start working outside? What’s in it for you, besides feeling better and some random health benefits? How will it affect a person’s ability to work?
The clear-cut, most obvious problem with work is job-related stress. We’re pushed too hard for too little pay. This can be stressful. We’re doing something we’d rather not, rather than doing something we actually enjoy. This is stressful as well. We’re competing with our workmates for promotions, pay raises, or even just to keep our jobs. Such competition, especially prolonged competition, can be stressful. We’re looking over our shoulders, worrying about layoffs and mergers and fluctuations in other markets that affect our employment. This can be stressful, especially because so much is ultimately out of our immediate control. It’s no wonder, then, that people assume that the stress comes entirely from the actual work. Doing anything for eight hours at a time, especially when you don’t particularly care for it and particularly when you sit down the entire time with nary a break, can be draining and stressful. You toss in a long commute and a boss you hate, and things get even worse.