Many of us are wondering why despite our material wealth, our generation just does not seem to be very happy. Perhaps, we just spend too little time in nature, thinks E&M author Monique Santoso. In what follows, she tells us about the healing potential of forests – and why just a little more time outside would already help a lot.
Walking through the woodlands is an incredible way to reflect over one’s actions and find inner peace.
We are all certain about how good being outside and engulfed with nature can make us feel. The field of forest therapy has been studied for centuries and the results are conclusive. Hearing the sounds of the forest, the smell of the grass, the birds gracefully sitting on the branches as sunlight shines through them, heals us.
Nonetheless, how exactly do we put into words the happiness we feel when we are in nature? In Japan, the practice is called shinrin-yoku – which translates to “forest bathing” – taking in the forest through one’s senses. Perhaps a more adequate name would be forest-basking since the practice neither requires soap or a bathtub.
Shinrin-yoku is an old practice, originating in the early 80s. The term was first officially coined by Japan’s forestry minister in 1982, Tomohide Akiyama, who started a government-level campaign to promote Japan’s 25 million hectares of forests, all of which make up 67 percent of the country’s land. Through being in these forests, Akiyama was certain that citizens of the country, and tourists alike, were bound to experience lower pulse rates and lower blood pressures, all of which contribute to feeling more relaxed.
Today, shinrin-yoku stands at the forefront of Japanese preventive medicine. This practice does not compare to a hike, a trail run, or even camping. In shinrin-yoku, one is not concerned with the destination, but with the experience itself. It is the act of bridging our minds with nature around us. It incorporates many of the benefits of meditation while getting outside and in motion.
Friluftsluv: The key to a happy life
On another side of the world, Norwegians call this healing friluftsliv, the human need for uplifting interactions with nature through ‘open-air living.’ Popularized by Norwegian playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen in 1850, the phrase is currently used by Scandinavians to express their time spent outside in remote natural spaces. Like shinrin-yoku, friluftsliv is rooted in mindfulness as opposed to adventure.
Outdoor Journal, a magazine aimed to inspire people to experience, enjoy and protect wilderness, says that all one needs to live friluftsliv, is to be in the context of nature.
While shinrin-yoku focuses deeply on the immersion with forests alone, friluftsliv is more open, extending to any open, natural space one can find. Therefore, for individuals who live closer to spaces such as the coast or the mountains, friluftsliv comes to play, even when shinrin-yoku does not.
The difference in joy that the participants reported feeling in urban versus natural landscapes was even greater than the difference they experienced when being alone versus being in a group.
And science is on nature’s side. According to George MacKerron, an economist at the University of Sussex, individuals are substantially happier outdoors in natural habitat types than they are in urban environments. MacKerron used data from Mappiness, a software application for Apple devices that asks participants from over 14 million spots across the world to record their happiness level randomly twice a day. Each time a participant does so, the application notes down their location and activity. The difference in the joy that the participants reported feeling in urban versus natural landscapes was even greater than the difference they experienced from being alone versus being in a group.
Furthermore, Japanese scientists have found numerous health benefits to forest bathing, including the enhancement of the human immune system through the growth of natural killer cells (NK cells), cells that play a massive role in fighting tumors and infections. They also enhance the growth of anti-cancerous proteins. Dr. Qing Li and his team have discovered that these natural killer cells remain in one’s body anywhere between 7 to 30 days after a forest bathing trip, showing that a weekly trip through nature is enough for one to increase physical immunity.
Another Japanese study published in the Journal of Public Health shows how forest immersion or shinrin-yoku leads to a reduction of chronic stress. The researchers reached this conclusion through measuring data of cortisol levels in over 400 subjects before and after a walk through the woods.
To live or not to live in cities?
As per reports from the United Nations, 55 percent of the world’s population resides in urban areas, a number that will increase by more than 10 percent in the next 30 years. Despite the promise that urbanization holds and the progress that comes with it, it is important to note that living divorced from natural landscapes is associated with rising mental illness worldwide. Data from the Danish organization Velux has reported that we, the indoor generation, spend 90 percent of our time indoors without enough daylight or fresh air.
Yet, it is crucial to understand that you do not need to leave your homes and start living a nomadic forest life. As the research demonstrates, to improve your health and wellbeing, a weekend of forest-bathing and nature immersion will already have a positive impact.
How to go about it?
Step 1: Unplug from your devices – Your phones and cameras keep you busy thinking about what could be – where you could be if not here, how your life could turn out had you been with your friend instead, or even when the next show starts on Netflix. To achieve healing, you have to be present, and live in the now.
Step 2: Freely wander – Shinrin-yoku and friluftsliv are not about a destination, a goal or an expectation. Let your body be your guide. Listen to the sounds around you. Take your time to feel your feet walk through the damp soil. You are letting nature take over you.
Step 3: Pause – Take the time to be aware of the leaves you notice, or the colors of the butterfly sitting on a flower. Smell the natural aromas of phytoncides. Dip your toes in the river. Reactivate your sense of joy.
Step 4: Silence is golden – If you decide to go with a friend, agree to keep quiet until the end of your journey. It can be hard to slow down and talking may encourage the feeling of rushing while the aim is to stay as long as you would like. Picking a quieter time of day will also help you find silence in places frequently visited by many.
Where to forest bathe?
Europe has a range of beautiful and mysterious forests. Below are a few recommendations of places to visit, but it is important to understand that both practices – shinrin-yoku and fluftsliv do not need extensive air or road travel to practice. Your backyard, the woods behind your house or simply your window that overlooks greenery accomplishes the goal, given that you are mindful about how you carry it out.
- KRZYWY LAS:The crooked forest located outside Nowe Czarnowo in Western Poland features a grove of uniquely shaped pine trees. With their natural landscape that inspires thought, their preserved wildlife species, and the carefully marked trails, Krzywy Las will not disappoint travelers who aim to connect with their natural landscape and increase wellbeing.
- LONGSHAW, BURBAGE AND THE EASTERN MOORS, ENGLAND: With its breath-taking scenery, an abundance of wildlife and open access to bridleways, footpaths, and climbing edges, Longshaw, Burbage, and the Eastern Moors, have a lot to offer to wildlife enthusiasts, outdoor experts, and mindful walkers.
- OASI ZEGNA, PIEDMONT, ITALY: Oasi Zegna is a 100 square kilometer protected park managed by the Zegna Foundation. It features pristine waterfalls, bioenergetic experiences and three routes that are specifically tailored to the practice of forest bathing. The European Forest Therapy Institute annually holds its forest bathing and forest therapy guide training.
In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.
From its promises to its outcomes, nature provides many ways of accessible healing for all.
Living in a technologized world where we are constantly filtered in with the newest medical procedures for relaxation and healing, some may not believe about the effectiveness of traditional practices, such as forest bathing. Nevertheless, there lies value in looking through practices done by older generations and take a peek at what they can teach us.
Only when one begins to understand that healing and curing can come from different places, one can truly appreciate what nature holds for each one of us. Through being still in forests and meditating over our actions, the outside world undoubtedly offers more than just its beauty and its resources: it offers its healing.
As philosopher John Muir said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”