Have you ever stepped out of the car (after a traffic-dodging drive from the city) into fresh mountain air, drawn in a deep breath, and felt instantly—miraculously—well, better? The spaces we live in affect us deeply: they impact our behavior and, as a result, our health. Our environment can trigger a stress response (an imprisoning brick wall, stacks of unpaid bills, mounds of dirty laundry) or cue the relaxation response.
As we return to desks, deadlines, homework and cooler weather, let's consider the benefits of bringing a feeling of vacation back with us to our homes, our cubicles, our daily lives. Adding a little nature to our lives is one way to put a few more deep exhales back into the daily grind: a connection to nature, after all, is an essential ingredient of human health and well being. Here are 10 reasons for bringing the outdoors in:
Above: Houseplants in the bedroom of rug designer Cassandra Karinsky in Sydney, Australia, via The Design Files.
1. Plants improve air quality. In the 1980s, NASA discovered that plans can improve indoor air quality. And let's not forget that fresh air helps you sleep: Remember, nature is the original Ambien.
Above: Photograph of yellow mimosa flowers from Cécile Daladier.
2. Fresh-cut flowers in the home boost feelings of happiness. As I stroll through the supermarket aisles, I often wonder: is it worth the extra tally on the grocery bill to buy flowers? They are cheery, no doubt, but they never last long. After reviewing the research, I'm now convinced: it's worth the debit in your happiness account. Studies have shown that flowers reduce depression and increase positive emotion. Read more in Need to Be Productive? Buy Some Flowers on Greatist and Flower Power in Rutgers Magazine.
3. Growing what we eat can help connect to the earth. For urban dwellers, compact edible gardens or a few potted herbs can make a dramatic difference in our culinary experience. After growing a bit of lettuce on our back porch, my children now prefer it to the store-bought variety.
Above: A still life of shells and stones is one of many natural collections at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge.
4. Consider adding a small tree, a rock garden, or a terrarium to your indoor space. A verdant tree, like a Fiddle Fig Leaf, or a small rock garden of collected stones or a terrarium can help set the mind at ease after a hectic day.
5. Getting back to nature can inspire creativity. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the term "nature-deficit disorder" to describe a condition that he says results for our lack of communion with living things. He recommends living in and around natural living things, which boost our creativity, happiness, and health.
Above: A set of herbal tisanes at Babel Restaurant in the Cape Winelands of South Africa.
6. A dose of nature can enhance energy and performance. Atlanta-based interior designer Ginny Magher (full disclosure: Ginny is married to my father, Craig) recommends growing a variety of kitchen herbs in small pots for a quick tisane. She snips fresh basil or thyme into her tea and finds the scent of fresh herbs provides an early morning mood-boost.
Above: A houseplant in a vintage pale blue pot from At Swim Two Birds.
7. Spending time looking at plants can help you heal faster. Nature is natural medicine. In 1984, environmental psychologist Rodger Ulrich conducted a study on gallbladder surgery patients, which proved that those whose rooms overlooked trees healed faster than those who looked at a brick wall. Read more in How Hospital Gardens Help Patients Heal from Scientific American.
8. Spending time around greenery can improve concentration and increase attention span. This benefit holds true for children as well. Studies have shown that children who spend time around plants have better concentration (A "Dose of Nature" for Attention Problems, NY Times). At Waldorf Schools, families are encouraged to build a nature table to reflect the changes in the seasons; children are encouraged to collect "treasures" from the outdoors and display them inside to maintain a connection to the present season.
9. Being in a natural environment can improve memory performance by as much as 20 percent. Dr. Esther Sternber, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Wellbeing, says that our health extends beyond our physical bodies to include our emotions and the spaces around us. The practice of Feng Shui, the system of harmonizing the human experience with the surrounding environment, echos this same principle.
Above: At (or past) their prime ranunculas and a few potted plants from At Swim Two Birds.
10. Plants require care, which helps to flex our nurturing muscles, making us more compassionate. Caring for life can channel anxiety into an outlet of caretaking and nurturing. In our texting, updating, connected-but-disconnected modern life, we can forget our place in the larger universe; having a life to care for can put it all back into perspective—and again, helps us feel more alive, at ease, and whole.