Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Embracing the Power of Nature with Laura Allen and Courtney Crim
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 373 of Live Happy Now. It’s summertime, and if you’re listening to this indoors, it’s going to make you want to step outside. I’m your host, Paul Felps, and this week I’m talking with Laura Allen and Courtney Crim about the power of connecting with nature.
Laura is a Professor, and Courtney is an Associate Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Together, they developed a course called The Natural Environment and Well-Being, and they’re here today to talk about why it’s so important to get outside every day and what nature is doing for your mind, body, and spirit.
[00:00:40] PF: Laura and Courtney, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:43] CC: Hi, thanks for having us.
[00:00:45] LA: Yes, thank you. Glad to be here.
[00:00:47] PF: This is such an excellent topic, and it’s something that I really wanted to address. We’ve talked about this before, a little bit about nature and the power of getting out in it. But it’s rare for us to be able to talk to people who are such experts in nature and getting outside. So before we really jump into what that does for us, can you tell me what made you decide to start studying both the power and the benefits of the natural environment?
[00:01:12] LA: Well, we both teach child development, and we’ve noticed over the years the changes in the levels of stress, anxiety, depression, suicide, all things that are concerning in our students. So the ages of emerging adulthood, which is a new stage that most people in Western cultures go through, it’s defined as ages 18 through 25. We also know that is a key window for the onset of mental disorders such as anxiety and depression and psychosis and substance abuse.
The combination of those things concerned us. Plus we, Courtney and I, both have children who are emerging adults, so we saw some parallels there. Then we connected with some research. We found a book, I think it was 2017-ish, called The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, and read that, and started looking into this. There’s just become more and more studies. The studies, while a lot of them are correlational, they’re a lot stronger correlations. Now, we’re actually even getting some causal effects that we’re finding.
It’s sad that you need research sometimes to know. I think we know that going outside and being in nature is good for us. But having that solid research base really convinced us that this is something that can be effective, not just for college students but for everyone.
[00:02:32] PF: Yeah. It really does start from the time you’re little kids and when you’re used to going outside and playing and enjoying nature. It kind of feels to me like we’re getting away from that. Like I don’t see – I understand safety issues and things like that. But also, I seem to see more and more kids staying inside, sitting on a screen, doing things like that. Whereas when we were kids, we couldn’t wait to get outside. Is that true?
[00:02:57] CC: Yes. I think we’re just seeing – Well, COVID certainly didn’t –
[00:03:01] PF: Didn’t do us any favors there.
[00:03:02] CC: Yeah. It didn’t help with that, as everybody became much more comfortable being on a screen a lot of the day and being indoors most of the day. But we are seeing a shift, and we are seeing as people I think 80% of the US lives in an urban setting. As the numbers of people who live in an urban setting grow, fewer people are spending that time outside, so yes.
[00:03:26] PF: That’s alarming to think about. That we’re not going in the right direction.
[00:03:30] CC: Yeah. We’re not.
[00:03:32] PF: Oh, great. So now, we’ve talked on the show and in the magazine about the importance of getting outside. So what has your research found? What does nature do for us physically, emotionally, all the ways?
[00:03:46] CC: We’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of other researchers around the world who have been looking at this for decades. Japan is one of the leaders in this and since the early ‘90s have really been putting a lot of effort into looking at what the benefits are. I think we sent you our chart. So hopefully, your listeners can see that. But we broke it up when we were trying to look at it as different areas because it does so much in so many ways. But one of the areas that the research shows a lot of benefit in is physical, and that’s with your immune support.
In Tokyo, at the very early onset of looking at forest bathing and forest therapy, they did this wonderful study where they put people in hotel rooms, and one of the theories that underlines why nature is good for us is the phytoncides, and that’s a chemical that trees produce to protect themselves and to communicate with one another. If one of them was getting sick or ill, or if there’s a parasite, they will send these chemicals out to protect themselves, as well as trees around them. So they were pumping phytoncides into these hotel rooms and they thought, “Well, maybe it’s just because they’re in a hotel away from their family for the weekend.”
They actually did it with a comparison study. They had a control group. So they had some in a regular hotel room for the weekend. Then they had some where they were hyping in these phytoncides through the air conditioning system, and they did find a very significant difference in these certain white blood cells that our body makes, and they’re called natural killer cells. In the research, you’ll see them as NK cells. These white blood cells move through our body and seek out, I guess, things within your body that are not supposed to be there, a disease, specifically cancer cells from the onset, and kind of move through your body as a deterrent, as something that’s proactive rather than reactive of getting your body into a better physical space.
Cognitively, we see so many things. One of the theories also is attention restoration theory increases your ability to focus on a task that you may need. So that’s going to help your attention, your memory, all of those things. Also, rumination falls under cognitive. It falls under a couple of these, but rumination studies show that if you’re thinking over and over in your head, these negative thoughts, that’s really going to contribute to depression and anxiety, which is what we’re wanting to decrease.
The rumination studies that we’re finding are actually one of the areas where we’re finding a causal link. It’s not just correlational, using high tech, which we’re not doing. The portable MRIs, they’re able to show that there is a causal link with decreasing the rumination, which is also going to help you cognitively be able to focus on what’s in front of you and what’s important.
[00:06:49] PF: Now, do you know why? Do you have a reason for that? Like what is it about being out in nature that changes that rumination? Because I know that’s been a huge issue for a lot of people, especially as we’ve been isolated and locked down and then listening to the news.
[00:07:03] LA: So most of the research now is focusing on the mechanisms that is trying to understand what causes all these benefits, and it’s probably a synergistic effect of lots of things going on. But the theory that Courtney mentioned, the attention restoration theory, does probably one of the best jobs of discussing why rumination is decreased. So basically, what that means is in the 21st century, our frontal lobe, which is where all of our executive function and decision making is housed, is pretty much on all the time. Then you can just feel it. You just feel that mental fatigue a lot.
[00:07:35] PF: We do not shut down.
[00:07:37] LA: Right. We just don’t. So the theory, it’s more complicated. But basically, when you go outside, it allows that frontal lobe to rest and recharge, and it replenishes that glucose that we need because nature does a lot of different things. That’s one of the main reasons that they feel like you’re letting yourself recharge. So that decreases your rumination. You’re thinking about other things. You’re not constantly focusing on all of the task at hand.
[00:08:07] CC: Then socially as another area that we see a lot of benefit, there’s a really great empathy study that came out of Stanford, where they went out to a forest. The other half went out to an urban area, and they had the participants look up at the trees or look up at the tall buildings. Then the researcher kind of “accidentally,” and I’m putting the quotation marks around that, dropped their box of pens. It was like, “Oh, no. I dropped my pins.” Those that have been looking at the trees for one or two minutes all stopped and helped pick up the pens. Those that were in the urban setting were just kind of like, “Oh, too bad.”
[00:08:46] PF: At least I didn’t steal the pens. I mean –
[00:08:48] CC: I didn’t. I didn’t take off with them. But we do see increased empathy out –
[00:08:52] PF: That’s interesting.
[00:08:53] CC: Yeah, which is prosocial actions, cooperation, all of that kind of going together. Then emotional, we see a lot of good outcomes, and this is where we see this in the research that’s out in the field, as well as what Laura and I do with our students quite a bit. What I love about this is that we show them how their own body reacts, but we see a decrease in tension, in anxiety, depression, confusion, hostility, fatigue, which is another one we see increases in self-esteem-related effect.
Then overall mood, we use as the profile of moods survey –
[00:09:33] LA: States.
[00:09:34] CC: States.
[00:09:34] LA: Yeah.
[00:09:35] CC: Profile states.
[00:09:36] LA: Sorry.
[00:09:37] CC: So it’s used in a lot of the literature, and we use that, again, with our students and all of our outcomes for like correlate with what we’re seeing around the world. But that emotional piece is something that we’re focused highly on.
[00:09:48] PF: Well, let me ask you something, and this could be too off the wall. But one thing, I have a lot of friends who have had COVID. Now, they’re having like brain fog, and they’re having some other like lasting fatigue. I realized it’s too soon to have research on it. But anecdotally, is there anything that you have seen that would say, “Okay, this could be something worth trying to offset some of those,” because I’m hearing a lot of complaints from people.
[00:10:16] LA: I don’t think we’ve actually seen a study on that. So we would be hesitant to say yes. But given what we know about the benefits of nature, I certainly don’t think it would hurt, as long as someone doesn’t have asthma or allergies. It’s one of those Ozone Action Days or something like that. As long as you – I certainly don’t think it would hurt, and I think it very much might help. If I had that myself, I would definitely spend even more time outside.
[00:10:45] PF: If nothing else, it’s going to help your mood, right? It’s going to do that little pick me up.
[00:10:50] LA: Yes.
[00:10:51] PF: That’s terrific. Now, you ladies have been studying this a lot. Is there anything that’s really surprised you that as you’ve done this research, that was really unexpected for you to discover?
[00:11:03] CC: Our findings match the research literature on the effects of the natural environment on various aspects of health. We have found that we match pretty well. One thing that was interesting is we think we’re finding. We’re in the stages of analyzing some data right now, but it’s looking as if the impacts kind of strengthen over time with this age group.
At the beginning, they’re kind of like, “Oh, you want me to go sit outside. I’ve got a biochem exam coming up, and you want me to sit without my phone.” Then a couple weeks later, we’re seeing this, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re making me do this. This is really something I look forward to.” Then by the end of this semester, they were very much reporting that they needed this time.
[00:11:43] PF: That was excellent.
[00:11:44] CC: Yeah. It’s kind of interesting. It took them a little bit of time to see the benefits, and they aren’t very egocentric. They’re supposed to be. That’s their job at this. But seeing how it personally helped their own mood with these measures was also very telling. I had written down some of their quotes on the sit spots that I’ll share with you. One of them said, “Sit spots are hard at the beginning but because they’re so cool and have truly helped me manage my stress and the demands of the human world.” Another said, “I learned the most from our sit spot assignment. I learned how to take time to check in with myself and improve my well-being. I was able to lower my stress levels, improve my mood, increase my productivity after I completed my sit spot.” So it was kind of interesting to see that it took them a while
[00:12:27] LA: We didn’t really describe our. We teach a class in this. We started out with our interdisciplinary research team that we teach it. We were able to offer a class, and our commitment is more than 50% of the class will be outside in natural spaces. So field trips out to natural spaces, while we read the research literature. We also give students – We have them collect data on themselves and compare it to the literature so that they can see if it’s really – It’s great to say somebody else is getting these effects, but what’s happening to you?
That’s really powerful for them to realize that, yes, it’s not just somebody else somewhere else, but it’s actually I’m having the same benefits for myself.
[00:13:15] PF: So we’re going to take a quick break from our talk with Laura and Courtney, and I’m going to bring in Casey Johnson, our favorite. She’s our ecommerce marketing manager and always does such a great job. Casey, welcome to the show.
[00:13:28] CJ: Thanks for having me.
[00:13:29] PF: Now, Casey, you discovered a great product called Organifi. You brought it to me. I was already a huge fan of juicing, so I got really excited about partnering with them. Then what happened is it showed up in my house the same week I caught that little virus thing that’s going around. So the timing could not have been better.
I started using the Organifi green, and that has like 11 super foods and all the benefits of the leafy green veggies without the chewing, which I did not want to do right then. Then so I had like all these benefits of juicing, and all I had to do was scoop it in my glass and just stir it up. I loved it because it was organic, and it had like chlorella, spirulina, beets, tumeric. It tasted really, really good. It was a great way to get my nutrition and when I didn’t feel well. But now, I’ve found it’s a great morning drink to start my day, and it’s making sure I get my vitamins and antioxidants in.
Casey, why don’t you tell our listeners how they can enjoy the benefits of Organifi?
[00:14:24] CJ: Sure. They can go to organifi.com/livehappynow. That’s Organifi, O-R-G-A-N-I-F-I.com/livehappynow, and they’ll get 20% off their first purchase. If you go to organifi/livehappynow, that code is automatically applied at checkout. Or you can just go to organifi.com and use the code Live Happy Now to get that 20% off.
[00:14:51] PF: Super cool, and I totally recommend it. I hope people check it out. Now, speaking of green things, we’re going to go back to Laura Allen and Courtney Crim because they’re talking about the healing power of nature.
[00:15:05] PF: You talked about where they didn’t want to go outside at first, and it really struck me. We’re like that too as grown adults, where it’s like, “I don’t want to leave my desk. I have this work to get done. I don’t want to do it,” and we kind of have that same resistance. How do we get past that and get to that point? Because we don’t have professors like you saying, “Hey, give me your phone and go outside.” We have bosses that say, “Sit at your desk and get your work done.” So how do people find that within themselves and do you create a schedule to go outside? Like what’s a great plan to get started in doing this?
[00:15:41] CC: Starting in small steps. Having like – If Laura and I are going to have a quick meeting, we can go sit outside, or we can walk somewhere on campus, kind of like a walk and talk. That’s a very easy way to start. We have these great Adirondack chairs on our campus. So if I’m reading or grading, I’ll just go sit outside. I have moved my standing desk to my window. So when I’m standing and working, I’m actually looking out over a green space area.
[00:16:09] PF: That reminds me. Let me ask you because I have seen a lot of studies about how, say, patients in a hospital who have a window that look at a park fare better than someone who has no window or is looking at the parking lot. You talk about how just seeing nature outside our window or even in a painting, like the beautiful one over your shoulder. How does that affect us?
[00:16:29] LA: Actually, there are quite a few studies that show that just looking at images of nature compared to images of built environments improves some of these things we’ve been talking about. Typically, it’s better to be outside. But, yeah, if you can just have the images and the pictures or if you can – I know our daughters at school, they have beautiful windows in their apartments and dorms with trees outside, but they don’t ever open them. I’m like, “Oh, my god.”
So like when we’re FaceTiming, I’m like, “Is your window open? Show me.” I’m like, “Open your blinds.” Just simple things like that. But I try to take breaks during the day. I know a lot of us are working at home sometimes and I’ll just – When I kind of feel like I’m fatigued and stopping place on something, I’ll just take a short walk, and I just kind of get that recharge I need to be able to do that.
Plus, I don’t know, I think Courtney are both very good at taking vacations intentionally that are in nature. My family just – We got back from the Rocky Mountains. We just went last week, and we went specifically for hiking and to spend time outside, so just being a little bit more intentional. Yeah, it’s fun to go to New York City. But is that necessarily the best for us?
[00:17:38] PF: Yeah. That’s a great thing to think about as parents of where you take your children. Have you seen, I guess, kids get used to spending more time outside? Will that become more natural, no pun intended? Will it become more natural to them to be out in that environment? Or is it always going to be a struggle with the screens?
[00:17:57] CC: I think it does. I think the language that we tend to use a lot is kids are naturally curious, and they’re at one with nature. They thrive in that unstructured, natural environment, and we kind of tame it out of them. The more that they are in schools that keep them inside or don’t have outdoor learning environments available to them, so I think keeping them focused. It becomes like typical, expected part of what their family does. If friend groups and peer groups continue to find ways to be outside.
In San Antonio, we had an initiative at the 10-minute walk where every family would be able to walk to a green space within 10 minutes of their home. You may not do that with your family, but you may do it with a group of peers. So you’ve got that access. I think all of that’s going to continue to benefit, as far as keeping children curious about nature and their green environments.
[00:18:56] PF: You bring up a great point because what about urban areas? Not everyone is 10 minutes away from a green space. So what are some solutions for people?
[00:19:04] LA: A number of the studies that we’ve found benefits are done in urban parks. So it’s not that you have to go out to wilderness settings. The key is to get outside around green space, blue space that we call it. There’s even a recent study that came out about people going out into the desert, and just being out in the desert was more beneficial than being in an urban context.
So it’s not – You do not – I mean, obviously, it’s lovely to go out to the mountains or to the river or something like that, but you don’t have to. The key is to get outside, just maybe eat your lunch outside under a tree in a green space.
[00:19:44] PF: This is so interesting, and it’s so important. It’s so simple and so effective. It’s like truly all you have to do is go outside and be still, and it makes changes for you. So what is the one thing that both of you, you really want people to know about this and hope that they discover?
[00:20:00] LA: I think it’s a much more powerful source of wellbeing than we have understood. I think our ancestors, we evolved in natural spaces. It’s only been recently. Actually, it was 2008, that the whole world lived more in urban environments than in rural environments. So what we’re seeing is the effect of urbanization on us. We know that urbanization is correlated with mental health disorders.
So just how easy it is, and it’s much more powerful. It certainly is no substitute for seeing mental health professionals or things like that. But I think that we do not realize the impact of staying indoors and especially staying on screens as often as we do. One thing I just wanted to mention is that there’s a lot of research now into the dose and exposure effect. In other words, how long do you have to do this? Like how long do you have to be outside to really get those benefits?
The most recent research shows that about 120 minutes per week is a good amount, and that can be done like all at once. But it can also be done cumulatively. Like if you can’t go outside for 120 minutes today, those can add up. They kind of found a sweet spot between 200 and 300 minutes a week. So after 300 minutes a week, you really didn’t get any additional benefits. So just kind of – I think for us, we kind of keep that 120 minutes in our head. All of it matters and all of it helps, but I just think we need to realize that it’s probably the simplest thing we’re not doing to improve our wellbeing.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:21:43] PF: That was Trinity University’s Lauren Allen and Courtney Crim, talking about the power of connecting with nature. If you’d like to learn more about their work or schedule a virtual group forest therapy walk, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
Throughout July, we’re celebrating Live Happy’s summer of fun month. As part of that, we’re giving away some prize packs that include great Live Happy merch, The Happiness Workbook for Kids by Maureen Healy, and some other very cool family friendly gifts, including Sunny Sunglasses made just for kids, and Yipes plant-based face and hand wipes to keep those little hands and faces clean while you’re outside enjoying nature with the family. Visit our website or follow us on social media to learn more and find out how to enter.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.