How your local, natural environment can create happiness
Forest bathing (or shinrin-yoku) and the world of work aren’t terms you probably hear uttered in the same sentence too often. And perhaps rightly so. What possible place could forest bathing have in the workplace, or in fact, in the urban jungles most of us inhabit? While they may appear as juxtaposing forces, there has never been a better (or more crucial) time to incorporate the power of the natural world into our working lives, and here’s why…
Despite our affinity to nature, we have become an urban species and by 2050, 75% of the world’s projected 9 billion population will live in cities. We are also increasingly, an indoor species. Even before the pandemic, Europeans spent 90% of their time indoors and with the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve seen an even bigger surge in our time spent inside – and on our screens. Back-to-back Zoom calls are now a firm part of our working reality, and the result? A significant impact on our health, wellbeing and happiness. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Helping to combat the negative impact of digital fatigue and technostress, Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese concept developed in the 1970s which literally translates as ‘forest bath’. Rather than bathing in its usual sense of the word, it means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.
“Shinrin-yoku is like a bridge. By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world.” – Dr Qing Li
Funnily enough, over the last year, I'd unknowingly started to practice forest bathing, using the weekends to escape to local green spaces during lockdown. I started to notice a big difference to my mental health - I felt instantly calmer and more content, and recharged for the working week ahead. This sparked my own curiosity and discovery of shinrin-yoku, and its powerful impact on the human mind, body and soul.
A wealth of evidence proves that shinrin-yoku has a host of health benefits, including, but not limited to:
Reducing blood pressure
Lowering stress (by reducing the stress hormone cortisol)
Improving concentration and memory
Boosting the immune system
Improving your mood
Studies have also shown that where there are more trees, there is greater happiness levels. In fact, the positive effect of trees on people’s mental well-being was found to last longer than short-term boosts to happiness such as getting a pay rise; and in one study, they even found that having 10 trees on your street was the equivalent to receiving a $10,000 pay rise.
Of course, not everyone has access to a forest, or the luxury of time in our busy, chaotic lives, to practice shinrin-yoku in the full sense of the term. However, there are ways that we can tap into the experience of forest bathing - wherever we are - to experience many of its benefits…
1). Visit a local park
“Trees in the city are just as important for our health as trees in the countryside – maybe even more important.” – Dr Qing Li
Dr Qing Li, scientist and author of ‘Shinrin-yoku: The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing’ recommends visiting a city park in the absence of a forest and staying for 2 hours if possible - although you’ll notice the effects after just twenty minutes.
He also recommends some key practices for shinrin-yoku in the park:
Leave your phone, camera, music and other distractions at home
Slow down and forget time
Come into the present moment by finding a spot and noticing what you can hear, see, smell and touch
Notice what you feel
2). View nature
In one study, Professor Roger Ulrich discovered that having a view of nature could significantly help patients recovering from illness compared to those who had a view of a brick wall. In a later study at a Swedish hospital, patients who were shown photographs of an open, tree-lined stream recovered more smoothly and needed less pain medication that those not shown a view of nature.
3). Listen to the sounds of the wild
We are often surrounded by a cacophony of sounds – traffic, chatter and music to name but a few. Unsurprisingly, studies have shown that we are more relaxed when we listen to nature and our favourites include the sound of running
water, wind and bird song. Helpfully, we can now tap into these very sounds through the likes of Spotify or YouTube. My own favourite is the sound of a roaring fire. Hello hygge!
4). Get colourful
Colours can impact our emotions and evidence shows that we find the blues and greens of nature the most restful (which explains my own, accidental décor choices!). They make us less anxious and reduce our stress, while the greys of our cityscapes have been shown to make us unhappier and even more aggressive. Embracing these colours in our home can help to recreate the restorative feelings we experience when in nature itself.
5). Tap into the smells of the forest
Our sense of smell is primal and has a direct effect on our mood and behaviour. The smells of the forest can also be replicated through the use of essential oils, incense or candles. Fragrances such as cedarwood are especially effective for relaxing the nerves and calming the mind.
6). Take your shoes off
To connect with the earth and use your sense of touch, try walking barefoot in the garden or your local park. Feeling the sensation of grass between the toes can help us to feel grounded and connected to the natural world.
7). Fill your home with plants
Bring the forest indoors (quite literally) and benefit from greater air quality by filling your home with plants!
These are just some of the ways that you can tap into the wonders of nature, to counterbalance the stresses of work and create more happiness for yourself and others - but there are plenty more!
To unlock more techniques and discover the incredible science that sits behind forest bathing, check out Dr Qing Li’s brilliant book ‘Shinrin-yoku: The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing’.