Go outside and find some happiness!
Here in Michigan, it feels like the 104th of January. Still snowy in the morning, still chilly, with only momentary glimpses of sunlight. We exit our caves (also known as homes) and shield our eyes from the intense rays of the sun when it shows itself, and delight in its warmth and provision of vitamin D.
At this point in the year many of us, regardless of our latitude, are eager to be outside enjoying everything nature has to offer. We long for July nights, sunsets over the water, hikes in the mountains, rope swing jumps into the lake.
This might sound crazy, especially to those of us who really just want it to be 76 and sunny, but may I suggest that you don’t wait to be outside? That you go outside……right now?
“That’s ridiculous, it’s cold!”
“Stephanie has gymnastics and interpretive dance class today”
“Hulu has the most recent New Girl episode up!”
I get it- especially the last reason. Schmidt’s comedic delivery is almost flawless. But again, may I suggest that you don’t wait to be outside?
Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term coined by Richard Louv, is a metaphor for “the price paid, particularly by children, for our societal disconnect from the natural world”. He suggests in his writings that an increase in “Vitamin N” (vitamin nature) can improve our mental health and social bonding. His approach and research present only a small piece of the growing evidence that time outside is not only good for us- it is necessary.
In a 2015 study, Stanford researchers found evidence that time in nature could lead to a lower risk of depression. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science reports that when individuals walk in nature for 90 minutes, they show decreased activity in a region of the brain, called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, that is associated with depression. This part of our brain, the subgenual prefrontal cortex, is indicated in what is known as ruminative thought.
Below is an example of ruminative thought:
“I can’t believe I said that to Ashley at dinner tonight. I am so stupid. I bet she thinks that I don’t know anything about raising kids. She probably won’t ever let her son come over for a play date again. She probably doesn’t want to be my friend anymore! I can’t believe I said that, it was such a ridiculous thing to say. It’s not even that true. Well, sometimes it’s true. I don’t even know if it’s true, why did I say it? Ugh, stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Ruminative thinking is MISERABLE. It’s like your brain is turned on (in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, specifically) and will not turn off, no matter what you do. You’re stuck in a thought loop that isn’t positive, isn’t helpful and beats you down. I talk to people often about ruminative thinking and the power it has to erode happiness. None of us want it, yet many of us are eroded by it daily.
According to the Stanford study, Richard Louv, and an endless line of other researchers and experts, being outside may provide relief from not only ruminative thinking and depression, but to difficult mental health experiences overall. It seems like an easy and cheap solution to improve your quality of life, without any unusual side effects.
I’ve got a few suggestions for you that are easily workable into busy family life and may improve the quality of life for your entire family. Take a look at the list and try out any that feel right for you.
Eat dinner outside
I know, Emma has a robotics competition at 6:30. You still have to eat dinner. Do it outside! You can sit in your back yard, or you can grab food on the road and stop at a park to eat. Leaving technology in the car is a bonus- we connect more easily with others and the world around us when technology isn’t accessible.
Go Puddle Jumping
After a nice spring rain, most areas have puddles. Get everyone in their rain boots and see who can jump in the deepest puddle or create the biggest splash. Don’t be afraid of mud and messiness. The sensory experience is good for the brain!
Build a nature collection
Nature is full of collectible items. Toddlers seem to be especially good at finding these items and placing them directly into their wide open mouths. Go on a walk in a green space and look for curious natural items- a curvy pinecone, a Robin’s egg, a rock that looks like Bill Murray- the opportunities are endless. Let your children explore them, common sense intact (please don’t let them eat bird poop), and enjoy the world around them with their senses. Don’t hurry. Don’t create a specific and achievable goal other than being and exploring with your kids.
In my practice as a therapist and social worker, I have learned to help others create achievable goals. In support of this principle, I leave you with the above three suggestions. They are simple, flexible, and achievable. Recent research indicates that time outside will improve your mental health in a multitude of ways. If you want to discover more simple ways to integrate nature into the daily life of your family, check out Vitamin N by Richard Louv, as well as his other publications.
May I suggest, one final time, that you don’t wait to be outside?
Put on your spring jacket (also called a Parka if you live in Michigan) and head outside. Take in the weather as it is, the creatures as they are, the dirt, the rocks, the silence. Be there fully, and be fully present in yourself.
Sarahlin Smith LMSW, LCSW
Sarahlin is a clinical psychotherapist working out of Troy, Michigan. She runs a private practice providing care for children ages 2 and up, adolescents and adults. She loves spending time with her family, finding adventure, reading, running and nerdy science.
Louv, Richard. The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life, 2016. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Bratman et al. Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation, 2015. PNAS Early Edition