Going Wild: A Remedy for Nature Deficit Disorder

American culture has moved indoors. There is such comfort and entertainment available within the finely accorded walls of our homes and offices that time spent in nature is becoming increasingly rare.

With the advent of the computer, video games, and television, children have more and more enticements to stay inside. The average American child spends 44 hours a week with electronic media. The numbers are even worse for adults, who spend more of their lives than ever indoors.1 Adults report spending an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings plus about 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles.2 That means a minuscule 7% of time is spent outdoors!

The results of this phenomena have been described as “nature deficit disorder.”What is the solution for this disturbing over-domestication of our species?

Going wild.

By this I don’t mean approaching life with a hedonistic devil may care, remove the shackles of morality, “girls gone wild,” YOLO abandon.

I am talking about getting into nature. Simply. Deeply. Truly. Real nature … in any of its forms. Wilderness, community parks, groomed suburban trails, or even a vacant urban lot. Anywhere that natural life exists. You probably don’t have to go very far. Certainly, a National Park can provide a climactic nature experience, but that level of intensity is not needed to obtain the benefits of what lies in the created order.

A substantial body of research indicates that direct contact with nature leads to increased mental health and psychological development. A wide range of encounters with nature have been shown to produce such benefits, including extended wilderness excursions, hiking in open space, strolling through a city park, gardening, or tending a small plot of urban grass.

Dr. John Davis4 compiled a summary of extensive research indicating a broad array of physical, social, and psychological benefits of nature experiences. His findings are cross-cultural and universal. He cites the following: Nature experiences reduce burnout and increase a sense of relaxation. It helps people recover from surgery and improves their performance on many tasks. It increases one’s sense of fascination, intrinsic interest, and enjoyment. Nature experiences strengthen “hardiness,” which is a combination of an internal locus of control, an appreciation of challenge as opportunity, and a commitment to self. Additionally, it provides a sense of connectedness, wholeness, meaningfulness and is related to better mental health and less stress. In nature, people typically experience a sense of “flow” (absorption into the activity, present-centeredness, healthy loss of ego, and self-transcendence). Natural surroundings provide an enhanced opportunity for transpersonal and peak experiences.

On this subject, my stories are too numerous to tell … but here are a few:

◊ Kevin, my high school church youth director in Minnesota, had a side business as a BWCA (Boundary Water’s Canoe Area) wilderness guide. He took our youth group on an annual outdoor adventure in BWCA. Every year he transported thirty of us in vans, carrying trailers with 15 canoes, up to the Canadian border to this million acres of pristine wilderness – teeming with thousands of lakes connected by trails or “portages.” There were no bathrooms, no showers, no electricity, no roads, no cars, and no motorized vehicles. Diet Coke existed only in my fantasies.

Going wild in BWCA was a blessed adventure for me as a teen. The trip was grueling, beautiful, and spiritually uplifting. I went three times. We paddled all day every day, portaging from lake to lake, carrying our supplies on our backs: our food, tents, first aid equipment, sleeping bags, and canoes. Yes. I carried a canoe on my back. This was surely a “hardiness” building experience. Because it required grit and perseverance, I gained strength and confidence. In the midst of the vast outdoors I felt entirely enchanted and connected with nature – as loons made haunting calls across the water, the campfire crackled, and the warm morning sun woke us to another day of rugged exploration. We shared stories, prayed, perfected our paddling technique, gave backrubs, caught fish, and slapped mosquitoes. I came home with a heightened awareness of my place in the larger world, the mystery therein, and a feeling of connectedness with nature and my peer group.

◊ My dad loves motorcycles. He has collected, built, restored, swapped, and tended them for his entire adult life: BMW’s, Motoguzzies, Hondas, Yamahas, Indians, Suzuki’s, Kowasaki’s, and Harley Davidson’s. At any time he had twelve motorcycles in varying states of repair in our 3-car garage. Taking a sidecar ride along backwoods roads with him was a childhood delight of mine. Exploring remote country on his motorcycle has been a lifelong fascination, the wind in his hair – at one with his aromatic surroundings. One of his great pleasures has been traveling by motorcycle 500 miles from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Sturgis, North Dakota for the annual motorcycle convention. He has attended this event for 40 years, and camps outdoors every time. Sturgis provides him with a natural adventure, even as he turned 79 years old.

I said to my brother Bob, “Don’t you think Dad is getting too old to bike to Sturgis? He’s having a hard time walking.” My brother quipped, “Well, he seems to ride better than he walks these days.” It was his last year at Sturgis. Being out in the wild, sleeping in the open air, free as a bird … he was still having the time of his life. As he sold his last motorcycle and moved into the retirement home on Lake Johanna with my mom, this was an important peak experience. His wild-hearted hobby has afforded him a lifetime of restoration, affiliation, and enjoyment.

◊ My husband and our two children traveled 6 years ago to Zion National Park for a four-day, back-country hiking trip. We carried everything in backpacks high into the jagged mountains. It was intensely physical due to steep elevation gain and harsh weather conditions. On the challenging hike down, I was exhausted and singularly focused on getting to our car. However, my then 15 year-old son, Johnny wanted to hike a particularly difficult side-trip out on an elevated precipice called “Angels Landing”. Having done it previously, my husband encouraged me to accompany him. I agreed, unknowingly.

Only while out on the steep rock face did I discover what a death defying feat it was. I could not look down, as the towering height was mind-boggling and anxiety provoking. I had to look ahead and focus intently to cast out the rising fear of the long descent to earth. Johnny plodded on with the casual confidence of a billy-goat. Reaching our destination on the outermost “landing”, we marveled at the astonishing view, and the feeling of being part of something vast and larger than ourselves. We shared a mysterious flow … something sacred. When we finally returned to the trail I collapsed in relief for having safely finished. I only realized the magnitude of what this meant to Johnny when he later said proudly to his friends, “I knew I had a baad-ass mom when she hiked Angel’s Landing with me.” It seems this trek was a rite of passage and a compatibility experience for us both.

I could share dozens of wilderness experiences, and I imagine you have many of your own to tell. The question is, why don’t we get out there more? Sure, I enjoy running my dog Winston almost daily on nearby neighborhood trails. But, exploring nature more deeply and more regularly would further nourish my body, mind, and soul. It is largely a matter of determination and planning. What about you?

Although our homes may be safe and comfortable, by retreating into them we risk contracting nature deficit disorder. The evidence is clear: Partaking of nature will make us happier, healthier, and more in touch with ourselves and our world. Let’s go wild.

 

1The New York Times, “Who Americans Are and What They Do,” in Census Data, by Sam Roberts, December 15, 2006.

2“National Human Pattern Activity Survey,” Neil Klepeis, University of California Berkeley and Wayne Ott, Stanford University

3Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder.

4John Davis, “Psychological Benefits of Nature Experiences: An Outline of Research and Theory,” Naropa University and School of Lost Borders, July 2004.*

*Davis compiled research on the psychological benefits of nature experiences and summarized the following benefits:

Relaxation, stress reduction, and mindfulness

-Environmental Preference: coherence, complexity, legibility, and mystery

-Recovery from surgery, physical health and healing improved performance

-Increased sensory awareness and felt-sense

-Hardiness, locus of control, challenge, flow, and compatibility

-Challenge of wilderness experiences leading to self-confidence and improved self-esteem

-Coherence (defined as perceptions of connectedness, wholeness and meaningfulness) is related to better mental health and reduced negative stress

-Flow – involving high-stakes outcomes, high intensity, intrinsic motivations, absorption into the activity, and self-transcendence

-Compatibility – a fit between one’s need, one’s capacities, and what the environment offers.

-Extensive benefits for child development

-Social gains through nature experiences

-Exercise and physical fitness, leading to improved mental health

 

 

 

 

 Lean In

Last week I wrote about “moments of being” – those times when we are living consciously … fully aware and awake. After reading it, someone asked me a thoughtful question: what are some examples of moments of being, and how does one invite them?

My answer in two words is this: lean in.

Say YES. Dig deep. Dive into each endeavor; don’t shrink back. Instead of perseverating on the “why” and the “what if,” declare “why not?” and “I will.” Stop playing it safe – take a chance once in a while.

In the swimming pool of life, do you sit on the edge … at best, dangling your feet in the water? Or, do you get in, and let the cool water surround, sooth, and invigorate you? Will you move beyond the shallow end toward the deep water? Or try the diving board? Maybe even the high dive? Indeed there is danger, but what might be discovered in the diaphanous depths?

Leaning in involves being willing to dig into the messy parts – that which isn’t 100% predictable and known – but is rich with novelty and discovery. Delve into the gray areas; don’t simply tolerate ambiguity, appreciate it! There is mystery, nuance, and paradox in those matters we are not so certain about: an enigmatic beauty. Abandon the need for everything to be concrete, linear, and logical. You don’t have to calculate the answer to every equation. Let your right brain take charge once in a while. Move into meaning and purpose. Hug the essence. Play.

Cultivate the courage to take risks … in your career, relationships, hobbies, or life goals. This will require you to hone your sense of optimism. You’ll have to give up that whiney self-doubt that frowns and says, “Well, I don’t know, it might not work out.” It will require discipline to improve the quality of your thoughts: to recognize and challenge the negative ones, and replace them with more positive, self-enhancing ones. Develop the ability to manage your mind. Perhaps this verse from Philipians says it best: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philipians 4:8)

Adopting these truths and the skills to apply them was essential for me in overcoming depression years ago. While depressed, I embodied the worst extreme of negativity and inertia, entirely unable to do any of what I am advising you on now. But I am on a journey that has provided some lessons. Along the way I learned to stop approaching life like a fastidious hamster on a wheel. Caught unaware in a duty-bound and joyless existence, I was vulnerable for that dastardly illness to devour me. My Habitrail patterns of living had to be dismantled. I needed to break free of my cage.

C.S. Lewis, British writer and theologian, described this kind of learning, “Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”

Leaning in is partly about exploration; exploration invites moments of being. One of my favorite ways to explore is to get into nature. I call it “going wild”. Maybe this is because I grew up in Minnesota, where treasuring and surviving the outdoors is a central part of life. Welcoming the unique challenge and surprising beauty of each extreme season was a way of accepting life’s seasons … in all their joys and agonies.

In my youth, I loved to be outdoors regardless of the conditions. Running, swimming, canoeing, tennis, biking, camping, cross country skiing, ice skating, hiking, or just sitting on a river bank under a weeping willow tree. In Minnesota, if you let the weather be an excuse, you would rarely do a thing. Let’s just say the conditions are rarely ideal. We did not simply cancel school, or a ski trip, or a bike ride. We adapted. We shoveled. We wore layers. We didn’t expect to be comfortable. The moments of being I have enjoyed while battling the elements are epic in number. I have always found “woman against nature” an exhilarating contest!

One of the qualities that made me fall in love with my husband is his ability to lean in. He has a spirit of adventure and heart for exploration of all kinds – physical, intellectual, or spiritual. Learning, new ideas, and novelty are his lifelong cravings. At times those around him (including myself) struggle to keep up as he marches into uncharted territory. He shuns sameness, stagnation and complacency – the antithesis of a couch potato. His moments of being are robust.

For example, when we got engaged he shared his vision with me: moving from Minneapolis to Seattle the day after our wedding for a year-long marital adventure. It seems at age 8 he had read about the Pacific Northwest in National Geographic, and determined then that someday he would live there. Would I join him?

“Why not?” I said.

We had an amazing year exploring the Cascade mountains, the Olympic coast, the Emerald city, and in the midst, ourselves and our developing relationship. It was a strong start for us.

Not surprisingly, research on long-term marriage shows that what helps keep marriages happy through many decades is continuing to have novel experiences together. Neuroscientists explain that fun, exciting, and new experiences get the dopamine and norepinephrine flowing and reward the brain. Novelty is also the building block for brain elasticity, essential for adaptation.* Like all middle-aged couples, my husband and I have had some inevitable tough times in our 28 years together, but one quality we have always nourished is novelty. Give me high dopamine levels over diamonds anyday!

My husband quoted poet Robert Browning on our wedding day, both men reaching for the sublime:

“Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be….”

Discover your own ways to lean in and invite moments of being. They may look nothing like mine or my husband’s – rather, they will reflect the uniqueness of you. As you explore and take a chance on something new, I predict you will be delighted with the results.

 

* www.PositScience.com “Your Brain in Love”