Biophilia is the love of life. In his 1984 book with that title, Edward O. Wilson originally defined biophilia as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life.” This was a pioneering concept that put forth the notion that contact with nature is a critical element to human health.
I recently had the privilege of attending a lecture by Stephen Kellert at the Missouri Botanical Garden on this subject. A prolific author and researcher, Kellert wrote a book entitled Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life. He talked about challenge of incorporating nature back into our built environment.
Throughout history, the visual attraction of nature has enabled us to find food, water and other resources. Plants have long been used for medicinal purposes, and yet their aesthetic appeal alone can facilitate healing and relieve stress and pain. In spite of all this, people now spend an average of 90% of their time indoors, often with little exposure to even indoor plants. This deprivation from nature has had an cancerous effect on our culture, and we’re learning a great deal about the key role nature plays in our overall health and wellbeing.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows that contact with nature can relieve stress and stimulate healing. One study, for example, showed that patients with a window view of vegetation had shorter hospital stays, fewer complications, and less negativity than those exposed to a brick wall. By contrast, patients with a view of a brick wall required far more potent painkillers!
Exposure to nature can also improve attention and concentration, enhance problem solving, and stimulate creativity and imagination. There are a variety of studies that found that office workers with window views and natural lighting experience less frustration and have generally better health than their co-workers without windows. If there are plants in those windowless rooms, however, workers perform more efficiently, show greater attention, and have lower blood pressure. There are similar results in manufacturing environments where workers had contact with nature.
Kellert cited a Chicago Public Housing study that found significant differences between tenants of buildings surrounded by grass and trees vs. concrete, including lower drug and crime rates, greater optimism, stronger social ties and ability to cope with stress. The researchers found it “striking that a few trees and some grass outside a 16-story apartment building could have such a measurable effect on its inhabitants’ functioning.” It’s no wonder why we have greater unrest and dysfunction in our inner cities.
Contact with nature is also important in the healthy development of children. Children are naturally fascinated with nature, and crave the opportunity to get outdoors and play. Nature fosters a sense of identity, enabling children to feel naturally grounded, and recognize their abilities and limitations. It gives them a greater sense of reality and appreciation for life. Yet children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. Kellert reported that, in an average week, a typical child spends 40 minutes outside and 52 hours with some form of electronic media. Learning is largely limited to formal and abstract teaching classrooms. We are often raised to think in terms of how to control nature rather than live in harmony with it.
These health and lifestyle benefits present a strong case to spend more time outdoors and bring more of the outdoors in. While most of us have little opportunity to redesign buildings and the surrounding landscape, consider what you can do to embrace the natural world. Walk barefoot in the park, and put cut flowers in a vase on your kitchen table! Bring a plant into your office, and arrange some of your furniture to face the outdoors! You’ll benefit immensely from embracing life in its many forms!
This was published in the Going Green section of the June 2014 issue of Spirit Seeker magazine.