A good friend of mine is currently vacationing in the exquisitely beautiful province of British Columbia. She has sent me picture after picture of wooded back trials, picturesque sky lines, and a wolf dog accessorized with bear bells and zest for life. The landscape is stunning and the fresh air is no doubt unimaginably pure. I am so envious I could cry. While I am not able to diagnose, the mental health professional in me knows that I’m suffering from a severe case of nature-deficit disorder.
Author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. In it Louv carefully examined the consequences limited exposure to the natural world is having on society’s children. Growing up in concrete jungles and cemented playgrounds is wreaking havoc on our young people’s connection to self and planet. In his second book, The Nature Principle, he went on to explain how adults are suffering the same negative consequences through bypassing such things as much needed vacation days and mental health breaks. Throughout both his writings, Louv reiterates the highs and lows of being in nature – all its messy, elegant, breath taking, dangerous, and peaceful wonderfulness. Without question, repeated exposure to the natural world allows us to feel, to be scared, to be joyful, to be fearful, and, most importantly, to be ourselves. While nature is judgment free, we need to earn its respect. Is this why so many shy away from being outside – because the real world is too “hard’? When did the “fake” online world become easier to interact with then what is happening outside our own front doors?
When I was growing up, kids were outside all the time. During those wonderful long summer days of my youth the only requirement was to come inside once the street lights came on. Unfortunately, as childhood turned into adulthood, life responsibilities and tedious work days steadily reduced my “outside” time. Now in this plugged in world, it seems more and more people are choosing to interact with nature through a digital screen rather than the chaotic, awe-inspiring real thing. I, for one, struggle much more with the messiness of the online world then with anything that nature can throw at me. I’d take real over fake any day – and I don’t think I’m being too naïve in saying that most others would as well.
So why is nature so critical to our well-being? Why MUST we stop and smell the roses? The answer is quite simple – because as animals of this planet, it’s in our blood. By depriving ourselves and our children of quality time in the natural world, we are doing a great disservice to our overall development. Humans need sunlight for Vitamin D production, activity to stay fit and healthy, fresh air for increased vitality, wholesome foods for energy – all these things come from nature and do not have the same effect on our bodies when they are genetically modified or produced through technology. Numerous studies have shown that having limited interaction with the natural world comes at a tremendous cost to our emotional and physical well being. Richard Louv defines “nature-deficit disorder” as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Stop and think about this for a minute. Before technology (a solely man made construct) overtook society, there were lower rates of depression related illnesses; less cases of diagnosed ADHD and autism in children; decreased incidents of work related stress and anxiety; and reduced diagnoses of mental illness. Even though we have become so reliant on the digital world our bodies still crave interaction with nature. We must maintain a delicate balance between natural and man-made in order to establish a healthy, sustainable lifestyle in today’s ever-changing society. This balance is especially important with young people as they are more technologically advanced than any other generation on the planet. Even though four years olds can master the iPhone faster than their adult counterparts, studies have shown that by simply putting a poster of a natural setting in a classroom reduces incidents of behavioural issues amongst students. If it really is that simple, why aren’t we listening to our wild selves?
Nature time is not centered on leisure time. Being out in nature means to do so with no agenda and no purpose – just be. Sit back and watch a sunset, listen to the birds, take some deep breaths, or close your eyes and just listen. Connecting with nature means connecting with yourself, and the more people are connected with themselves the more likely they are able to connect with others. The further we disconnect from nature the less likely we are to respect the impact it has on our lives and, in turn, the respect we have for our one and only planet. Technology cannot fill voids the way time in nature can. Petting a dog, going for a walk in the woods, exploring pond life, fishing on a lazy afternoon, or floating down a quiet river are all experiences that only nature can provide. Such encounters make our life richer and add to our story of what it means to be human. To maintain a healthy balance in our lives, we need to consciously unplug and go outside – for that is where the real fun is – and where imagination and natural wonders will forever run wild.
In nature, unlike with technology, you’ll never have to buy an upgrade.