Have you ever wondered why you feel so good after time spent in nature? Or why flowers make you smile and have been shown to improve patient outcomes in hospital? This article explains why, with a fascinating look at the phenomenon known as Biophilia and how this is a vital human need.
“Viewed as an essential bond between humans and other living things, the natural environment has no substitutes.”
Kaplan & Kaplan, 1985, cited in Kahn, 1997
A Background & Introduction to Biophilia
It has been extensively documented that exposure to nature improves our health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that this exposure does not even need to be particularly high to make a positive difference. Research indicates that even a simple window view of nature can:
- Enhance productivity and reduce absenteeism in the workplace.
- Lower the incidence of illness in prison.
- Accelerate rates of healing in hospital and reduce the use of pain-relief medication.
This benevolent influence of nature in a wide range of settings has been attributed to a phenomenon known as ‘biophilia’. Biophilia refers to the fundamental need for humans to connect with natural life and mounting research demonstrates how this favourably impacts our mental, physical and social health.
In a review of over 100 papers, stress relief is cited as one of the core reasons people spend time in nature. This is also reflected in the finding that people who live nearby natural attractions report higher health levels and enhanced satisfaction with life in general. Conversely, a lack of plants suggests an ‘unnatural’ or potentially dangerous environment which may subconsciously stress the natural biophilic tendencies of the human mind.
In a fascinating demonstration of this natural affiliation with nature, a long-term study of a Swedish psychiatric hospital indicated that all in-patient destruction of art material occurred to abstract art. During the entire 15 year period of this research, the mentally-ill residents never attacked artwork depicting nature.
When questioned for research purposes, most people will also explicitly state that they prefer the aesthetics of natural surroundings to built environments. In fact, Egyptian artefacts indicate that people were displaying plants for pleasure in their home thousands of years ago. Therefore, biophilia is certainly nothing new!
So WHY do we prefer to look at nature and HOW does it make us healthier and happier?
The biophilia theory states that humans have an innate, essential and genetically inbuilt need to connect with other natural organisms.
If one accepts the most commonly proposed theory of evolution, human beings inhabited East African savannas for over two million years. Today, we still possess many of the physical and psychological features which were genetically adapted to help humans survive in such conditions.
For example, a preference to look at and live by water may have developed due to the fundamental physical necessities that water provides. Besides supplying a quintessential source of hydration, water also typically attracts animals and vegetation for dietary sustenance. In the wild, water can also be utilised as a defensive barrier.
The pleasure that humans experience from admiring flowers may also be related to the fact that blossoming plants indicate fertile land. Flowers also provide integral nourishment for the insects that form the foundational food chain which supports human life. Plants also favourably impact the human environment by humidifying and cleansing the air. Appreciating animals in nature also had previous practical functions; indigenous Eskimos acquired many hunting tactics by observing the behaviour of polar bears.
Still today, most people appreciate wide panoramic scenery or prominences that provide overlooking views. This may again be linked to our genetic heritage, whereby our ancestors would have benefited from sighting impending threats from invaders, animals or dangerous weather.
In addition to the subconscious mental pleasure we derive from viewing nature, being outdoors provides further benefits that may improve our health holistically. For example, we are more likely to be physically active whilst we are outdoors. Time spent outside also encourages higher social engagement. Research in poor urban communities has demonstrated that increased time spent outdoors improves social cohesion and support. Given the ability of nature to engage our attention, it also provides mental relief from worrying about everyday stressors.
Implications for Biophilic Health
Current common practices suggest that our natural gravitation towards nature has not been lost. Today, we still send flowers as a loving gesture to promote cheer in the recipient. People continue to love pets and feature aquariums in their homes; both of which have been associated with lowered blood pressure.
Despite this innate human need to cultivate biophilia, the modern world provides many barriers against doing so. Natural areas are increasingly cleared to facilitate the growth of cities, urban housing and road systems. Furthermore, ozone damage and pollution are health risks which prohibit many people from spending more time outside. Global warming is also contributing to the destruction of many natural wonders that encourage recreation in nature.
For most people in the Western world, the majority of necessary daily activities occur inside. Therefore, spending time in nature requires conscientious action, rather than occurring intrinsically in our daily lives as it once did. To cultivate biophilia on a social and personal level, we can:
- Protect natural areas and re-establish places of natural beauty.
- Create safe, natural spaces for children to play and appreciate the outdoors from an early age.
- Redesign buildings to include natural features, such as windows with natural views, indoor potted plants, skylights, outdoor eating areas, water features and décor based on natural themes, patterns, forms and textures.
- Advocate for educational systems that teach value for natural life.
- Seek out true wilderness experiences.
- Build beautiful gardens.
We feel happy and healthy spending time in nature essentially because of the genetic wiring of our brains. These neural pathways evolved to help our ancestors seek safe shelter and sustenance. Today, this lingering biological preference for natural surrounding may promote social interactions, physical activity, sense of community and also motivate us to protect our beautiful natural environment. Additionally, in our chronically stressed society, cultivating biophilia can help to create a more peaceful state of mind.
Griffin, C 2004, ‘An introduction to Biophilia and the built environment’, RMI Solutions, vol (Spring), pp 7-11.
Grinde, B & Patil, GG 2009, ‘Biophilia: Does visual contact with nature impact on health & wellbeing?’ International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health, vol 6, pp 2332-2343.
Heerwagen, J & Hase, B 2001. Viewed 12/03/14. ‘Building biophilia: Connecting people to nature in building design’. <www.usgbc.org/Docs/Archive/External/Docs8543.pdf>
Kahn, PH 1997, ‘Developmental psychology and the biophilia hypothesis: children’s affiliation with nature’, Developmental Review, vol 17, pp. 1-61.
Orr, DW 1994, Earth In Mind. Washington, D.C., Island Press.