Sitting in a tent in the Peruvian Andes, my 9-year-old son looked like an elf, mostly because his little face was exuding fairykingdom joy. “I’m so happy,” he said, clutching his knees to his chest. “I don’t know why, but I’m just so happy.” His pronouncement made me realize how happy I was, too. Like perfect-moment happy. We had walked 3 days on the Inca Trail and would, the next morning, arrive at Machu Picchu. At the time, it seemed as if our happiness stemmed from earnest reasons like relief and achievement. But looking back now, I think that after spending so much time in the tropical highlands and forests, we were both just plain—there’s no other way to put it—giddy.
I know: Giddy is not a word that brings John Muir immediately to mind. Nature is supposed to be stately, serene, serious. But go take a walk and observe what really happens. You may skip. You may trip, then laugh at yourself. You may make crazy faces when you hear a birdcall.
Evolved To Be High On Nature
Such antics are not the only human behaviors you’ll observe in nature. But being high on nature—in the throes of what’s lately being called (too cutely) outdoorphins and vitamin G (for green)—essentially means being in a supreme comfort zone, say scientists, a place of freedom where it’s OK to act as if we’ve been drinking from overly fermented plants. We evolved to enjoy places rich in natural resources because they represented a good turn of events. Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, has researched how being outdoors can even make us nicer. “In nature,” he says, “we feel more in touch with who we really are and what we want to do.”
Who you are, apparently, is someone pretty spectacular, someone more energized and generous (studies have found both), unjangled (a 2010 study showed that long walks through forests over 2 days lowered stress-hormone levels, pulse rate, and blood pressure), vital (after just 20 minutes a day in nature, according to one of Ryan’s studies), and ecstatic (neuroscientists say viewing natural settings increases interactions in the brain’s pleasure receptors). And likely less blue: The University of Essex in the UK found that 30 minutes of walking in a green scene reduced depression in 71% of participants.
On The Trail, Floating In Pharmaceuticals
The reason being outdoors performs like a drug may be, astonishingly, because you are floating in quasi-pharmaceuticals. This is the gist of new research into the microbes of nature. A Japanese researcher has zeroed in on airborne antifungal and antibacterial compounds called phytoncides. Inhaling these seems to boost a type of white blood cell that attacks tumors and viruses. (People living in heavily forested areas of Japan have lower rates of mortality from several types of cancer.) His findings have contributed to a national pastime known as forest bathing: Millions of Japanese walk along 48 Forest Therapy trails annually country’s notoriously crowded cities. Researchers have also flagged another inhaled substance, the harmless soil microbe M. vaccae, which works as a natural Zoloft and stimulates the release of cytokines, which can in turn lead to the production of serotonin in the mood-regulating area of the brain.
I asked scientists what it takes to pull off such happy interventions and learned it’s not hard. Getting out into any park is fine, especially if spend time under trees, rather than in open fields, for maximum phytoncide intake. And slow down—preferably without being plugged into an iPod or a smartphone—so that all five senses can get their share (it’s OK to run your fingers through soil). “The effects are enhanced if you’re paying close attention to nature, immersing yourself,” says Ryan.
Even in the city, you can grow phytoncide-emitting houseplants or get a bliss bump just from looking at photos of gorgeous scenery—which may explain why my dentist’s office has a waterfall poster on the ceiling.
More good news for the building-bound: The forest-bathing research team found that aromatherapy, such as whiffing cypress essential oil, can also deliver phytoncides.
I have chickens in my Austin, TX, backyard, and taking care of them morning and evening gets me out at the best times of day. My favorite outdoor chore, however, is hanging clothes on a line I’ve strung between two oaks. It’s not the Inca Trail, but the sunshine, the sky, and a breeze always goose my spirits. All that and the laundry’s done. That’s another kind of happiness.