There is no denying the biological benevolence of trees. As the largest plants on the planets, trees create an entire ecosystem in and of themselves, providing a habitat for animals. They absorb carbon monoxide from the air and release oxygen for our air supply. They help reduce noise pollution. They provide us with materials for tools and shelter. At the root of it all, trees are continually giving. But you may not be aware of what an impact trees have on your wellbeing. Turns out that spending time amongst these majestic plants can lower stress, boost feelings of happiness, improve your mood, increase your immunity…they can even alter your brain chemistry. Below, we discover just how powerful tree therapy really is.
Trees Have Feelings, Too…
Fans of the beloved classic book The Giving Tree will remember the generosity the female apple tree bestows upon a little boy throughout his lifetime. As the boy grows up and goes through various stages of his life, the tree gives him parts of herself: her apples so he can sell them for money, her branches so he can make a house, her trunk so he can build a boat, and her stump so he can sit and rest. With each sacrifice, she feels happiness. Was author Shel Silverstein onto something? Can trees feel? German forester, Peter Wohlleben, says they do. He is convinced that trees have emotions. He suggests that they live in communities, and like humans, they long for connection. If this is the case, it goes a long way towards explaining the profound connection that humans can experience when they spend time in forests surrounded by trees.
The Japanese Practice Of Tree Bathing
For the Japanese, whose Shinto religion is founded on a profound respect and love for nature, trees are more than just plants. In fact, they even have a term for the act of spending time with trees. Shinrin-yoku, aka forest bathing, is the Japanese practice of ‘topiary therapy.’ Proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, and boost the immune system, the idea behind forest bathing is to relax in the natural world. Studies have shown that participants who lived in city environments and engage in forest bathing are more rested and less inclined to stress than those who are not exposed to nature. Urbanites can benefit from the effects of trees with just a short visit to a park. Regular short-term exposure to greenery can help our immune system function and overall wellbeing. Adding to the insurmountable evidence, another study by a group of Harvard researchers shows that living near green vegetation can increase life expectancy. They cite four factors to back up their claim: trees provided less air pollution, promoted more physical activity, increased social engagement, and helped to better mental health (measured by lower findings of depression).
Biophilia For The Win
American biologist E.O. Wilson theorizes that the human need to connect with nature is a biological one, a notion he termed biophilia. According to Wilson, “Biophilia […] is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. Innate means hereditary and hence part of ultimate human nature.” And before you write off these ideas as too woo-woo, it’s worth nothing that companies have taken the concept onboard. We’ve begun to see biophilic designs popularized in office spaces, like Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park features an incredible nine-acre garden filled with native flowers, trees and evergreens. The space is equipped with white boards so employees can still conduct business whilst enjoying nature. In fact, even municipal governments are looking to capitalize on the trend and design biophilic cities, defined as “cities of abundant nature in close proximity to large numbers of urbanites; biophilic cities are bio-diverse cities, that value, protect and actively restore this biodiversity; biophilic cities are green and growing cities, organic and natureful.”
Go Take A Hike
One of the easiest ways to get out and be among trees is to go hiking. Not only is a walk on the trails soothing and cathartic, studies show that taking a hike can greatly benefit our brain power. Doctors are now saying that hiking prevents anxiety and depression by reducing neural activity associated to mental illness (it literally changes our brains), while this study by California-based non-profit PLOS suggests that hiking without any technology can provide a mental reset, decreasing neural fatigue and boosting problem solving and creativity. This is because in addition to the fitness benefits you get during a hike, the physical activity increases hippocampal volume (the part of our brain that aids with and prevents memory loss), boosts self-esteem and releases happiness endorphins. Taking a break away from the city can be as easy as going out for a stroll at a nearby park. Or plan a hike with friends for the weekends. If you need some trailspiration, we’ve got a great list right here!
Save The Children
It’s no secret that the millennial generation is technologically savvier than the rest of us. Born into omnipresent tech, and with fast fingers and short attention spans, young minds today are overstimulated by television and computer screens. Adolescents are opting to stay indoors and play video games instead of going outside to play. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is being diagnosed among children at an alarming rate. In almost all of the research on the subject, the one thread that is consistently cited as a boon for children with ADHD is being exposed to greenery. Studies show that children who increase their contact with nature and their outdoor activities can drastically reduce indications of ADHD– doctors are even prescribing ‘doses of nature’ to curb the disorder.
Other research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has shown that the absence of sunlight can impair vision and continuously staying indoors can reshape the eyeball to cause nearsightedness– which explains why being nearsighted seems to be more common these days- we spend way more time indoors than our early ancestors did.
Another frightening consideration on the subject of youth and nature: how can we expect future generations to protect our natural environment if they are completely disconnected from the outside world? Children need to be immersed in nature to truly value its sacredness. As George Monbiot of The Guardian opines: “If children lose contact with nature, they won’t fight for it.”
So get out there, and get your children out there. Our city has gorgeous tree-lined hiking trails that are easy (and free!) to access. Go and be one with the trees!
All images courtesy of Pexels.