Do you like it when you are surrounded by nature? Do you have a primeval desire to connect with nature? Most of us would answer that with a resounding YES.
There is a term for that.
Biophilia: The innate tendency of humans to connect with nature and other lifeforms.
An exciting hypothesis emerged in 1984 called the biophilia hypothesis (popularized by Edward Wilson). The hypothesis states that humans have an affinity for nature and the life it flourishes. The hypothesis is now extended to understand the effect and potency of this affinity.
For example, does looking through a window with a view decrease discomfort at the workplace? Yup, it does! This study also shows that the reduced discomfort improves the quality of sleep and thereby, home life.
It’s almost intuitive that humans like connecting with nature because we evolved in it. It is only in the last century that some humans got disconnected. But in the greater scheme of things, our homes were built around natural waters, plants, trees, flowers, fruits, and animals. In the evolutionary history of humankind, that provided a sense of security and helped us flourish for tens of thousands of years.
The importance of nature in our personal lives is pretty obvious to most of us. And there is a reason why it is obvious – it has been our home, it has shaped our genes, it has shaped our biology, it has shaped social interactions. It’s not surprising that most of us feel a sense of inexplicable oneness when we immerse ourselves in a waterfall or trail through a forest. This somewhat spiritual connection is almost universal. Biophilia is probably embedded in us through evolutionary circumstances and today, we experience it because we are partially disconnected from nature.
While biophilia means ‘the love of nature and life forms,’ the hypothesis doesn’t necessarily look at the positive side of this love. When we say nature, it simply means nature. Not everything natural is good. Some of it can be threatening. Lying flat on your back in a dessert with open wounds and vultures circling above can be stressful. I mean, I’d be stressed out if I were that person.
For the sake of understanding the research, we’ll look at biophilia in a neutral non-threatening context.
Researchers have studied this hypothesis in various context and raised a number of questions:
- Does disconnecting from nature affect mental health?
- Does nature promote an improved quality of life?
- Does making a workplace more nature-friendly improve productivity or profits?
- Are artificially created environments (ex: potted plants, virtual reality) representing nature potent?
Again, speaking intuitively, it is ridiculously obvious to most of us that many aspects of nature have a positive effect on us. We can confidently say that a propensity to connect with nature and lifeforms has a positive effect on our physical and psychological wellbeing.
Let us explore the biophilia hypothesis now.
Table of Contents
Exposure to nature and overall wellbeing
Tonnes of research studies converge to show that exposure to natural environments and features improve psychological well-being, but artificial environments lacking natural elements put us at risk of deteriorating physical and mental health.
This brings us to a fascinating new concept called the sick building syndrome (SBS) which furthers the fact that the absence of natural elements is bad for us. People suffering from SBS often report physical and psychological irritation and discomfort in the context of living in a specific building. People experience a range of negative symptoms such as lethargy, eye irritation, cough, dry skin, headaches, etc. SBS isn’t always isolated. It happens to a number of occupants of a single building and there are reasons to believe that the artificial buildings’ characteristics engender this phenomenon – everything from the blocky structures to air-conditioned dimly lit rooms.
It is reasonable to believe that not every person on the planet can act on their biophilia by visiting natural habitats or completely avoid the SBS.
So that begs the question – what if indoor environments are converted to include natural elements such as the smell of plants, the sight of plants, the sound of birds, scenic photographs, sunlight, natural shadows from clouds, etc.?
Research shows that artificially incorporating natural features in your own house also has benefits such as reduced blood pressure, a more stable heartbeat, a 14% increase in short-term memory, a decrease in negative emotions, and an increase in positive emotions. Even virtual realities which contain natural features have a positive effect on us. This could very well expand to include video games as a positive force if the players have a biophilic experience.
More supporting evidence shows that going to forests and coastlines can reduce stress and promote mental recovery after heavy cognitive work (studying, project ideation, vigilance & monitoring, etc.). The researchers also tested if the positive effects of nature exist if a person is immersed in a multi-sensory computer-generated 3D environment with nature sounds and physical features. Turns out that these restorative environments are potent enough to help patients recover from a variety of mental disorders.
In one clinical study, researchers asked depressed patients (major depressive disorder) to take a 50-minute nature walk right after thinking about an unresolved negative event. They assessed the patient’s mood and memory before and after the walk and compared it with a set of patients who went for an urban walk (as opposed to nature). They found, with a large effect size, that the walk improved their mood and memory in spite of ruminating in depressive thoughts.
Even children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) seem to benefit from natural environments. Parents, take note.
One of the cool things about acting on biophilia is playing with animals. I’m sure most of us love animals. Playing & interacting with animals makes us feel good. Research has already established that interacting with animals and pets has tremendous psychological benefits – mood improvement, stress relief, companionship, satisfaction with attachments, entertainment, etc. Animals are also quite useful in assisting physical and psychological therapy. Interacting with animals is a powerful way to connect with natural lifeforms.
It’s not like we needed a reason to interact with animals, right?
Let us now introduce a trend called Green exercise. Green exercise is physical activity/exercise in a natural environment. So if you like going to a lake and exercising, you are engaging in green exercise. While this sounds like a fad, it really isn’t. It highlights how important nature is to our wellbeing. A meta-analytic report showed that green exercise has a dramatic positive effect on one’s mood and self-esteem. And, the effect is more pronounced for mentally ill patients and those who exercise around water bodies.
People like exercising in naturalistic settings. One reason could be the sensory aspects involved – the smell, the variation in winds, the grass, the open view, clouds, etc. What if those sensory features are removed? In one study, researchers blocked sensory inputs and found that people felt more exertion, lesser vigor, and their heart-rates rose because of the sensory occlusion. This effect was worse after blocking sounds than blocking vision. It just goes to show how significant sounds are in our environment.
Nature, by itself, is extremely therapeutic and the advantage is that this approach has almost no harmful side effects. Biophilic principles are also used in a popular type of therapy – wilderness therapy.
Human-nature contact in the workplace
We, humans, work and it occupies a huge portion of our lives so biophilia in the workplace gets a dedicated section.
Carey J. Fitzgerald and Kimberly M. Danner (researchers from Oakland University) reviewed a number of experimental, narrative, and field studies and concluded that there is ample evidence to support the biophilia hypothesis in the workplace. In fact, not only is there support, evolutionary psychology (studying humans in the context of nature across time) and a biophilic design can inform the workplace design for a huge number of tangible benefits.
They drew 2 powerful conclusions:
- Workplace environments which have natural elements such as sunlight, plants, dogs, air as well as opportunities for movement and socializing can greatly improve psychological well-being, physical health, and productivity.
- Adopting biophilic elements and evolutionary psychological elements in the workplace can reduce employer costs such as absenteeism, medical bills, and the burden of low productivity.
How can you implement these conclusions in the workplace?
- There should be enough windows for sunlight. If that is difficult, access to open spaces for sunlight should be encouraged.
- Make the workplace animal-friendly because socializing with animals can reduce stress. This may not be feasible because there are animal welfare guidelines, accidents, and cultural sensitivities to address.
- Allow napping because it can improve attention and reduce workplace accidents.
- Exercise can be designed into the workplace by increasing the average distance between the desk and other frequented areas such as the parking lot, cafeteria, and bathrooms. Increased distance warrants accounting for the increased time it would take to walk around. Employees should be given that extra time.
- Let there be plants.
- If the employer cannot provide a biophilic design for you, you can improve your personal connection with nature by playing with animals, bringing a plant to the office, moving around, breathing in fresh air, visiting natural environments like parks and sanctuaries.
Research is piling up to show that a work environment with sensory contact to nature has positive effects. Researchers interviewed employees after retrofitting a workplace with natural elements such as open spaces, plants, furniture which looks natural, etc. They found that the retrofitting had an immensely positive effect on the employees.
Most employees were more motivated to visit the workplace, they developed emotional attachments with plants, their stress reduced, and their productivity increased. Aspects such as listening to bird sounds and the colors also affected their perception. They felt that the workplace is less hostile and conducive to peace and wellbeing. The open spaces also promoted healthy social interactions which bring a whole set of benefits. In a not-so-related study, researchers got people to socialize over squeezing colored balls to represent their mood and that got them to have fun interactions. An open and natural workplace design can be conducive to such activities.
When it comes to attention demanding work tasks, having a few plants around you can help restore a drained attention span. This does not necessarily mean that plants will improve your attention; it means that a taxed brain can restore faster after heavy-duty work.
Fun fact: Just by viewing roses in the workplace, your stress can reduce. This happens via the increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system which relaxes you. It is a simple evidence-based way to de-stress in the office.
Biophilic sustainability at the socio-environmental level
Let us now look at what research says about how biophilia affects us as a species.
In a field experiment, researchers appointed male and female confederates to walk in a park and drop a glove. They were instructed to make it look accidental and continue walking as if they were unaware of the dropped glove. Researchers observed passersby to see if they help the confederates or not. The researchers found that passersby who were immersed in the natural environment were more altruistic (helped with the dropped glove) than those who weren’t already immersed.
One interesting social psychology finding is that vegetation (trees) around a building in an urban area is linked to reported crimes. They reported a negative correlation between crimes and surrounding vegetation – as vegetation increased, crimes dropped. Biophilia can explain this to an extent – people feel better around trees and a more relaxed mind can be a small (but significant) buffer against someone resorting to crime.
The importance of biophilia is well recognized today and architects, along with researchers, are working on frameworks which incorporate biophilic elements at the city level. For the sake of well-being and happiness, architects endorse the need for biophilic design.
Biophilia, in essence, is conducive to environmental sensitivity and restoration. Increasing the volume of plants, reducing noise and air pollution to attract wildlife, and learning about the environment are factors which can address climate change at a personal level. However, if biophilia, as a theme, is used along with the goal of environmental conservation, we can begin addressing 2 important problems at the same time – the negative effect of climate change on mental health & the negative effect of climate change on Earth.
Biophilic design has a number of advantages according to research and provides useful guidelines to shape future environments.
- It lowers the energy needs of built environments in some contexts
- It caters to human comfort
- It contributes to improving social, mental, and emotional wellbeing
- It inculcates a preservation mindset
One example which stands out is how a biophilic environment has helped prison inmates. By adding nature and natural features, the inmates were more receptive toward behavioral change, experienced lesser stress, improved their mental health, and improved their cognitive functioning.
One way to look at this is that we can treat any place as a restorative environment by adopting biophilic design principles. This could be a move toward a global norm.
How to connect with nature?
Here is a quick list of biophilic activities which will ensure that you can reap at least of the benefits which research has demonstrated.
- Immerse yourself in natural habitats and naturalistic environments like forests, beaches, hilltops, fields, parks, sanctuaries, lakes, etc.
- Put in time and effort to acknowledge natural beauty
- Give importance to windows with a view if the option exists
- Spend time around plants
- Carry plants to your office if you’d like
- Spend time in locations with natural elements like wood textures, birdsongs, animals, cloud shadows, etc.
- Play with animals
- Take an interest in the environment and do your part as a citizen to help restore it
- Retrofit nature in your life via potted plants, wallpapers, games with restorative environments, etc.
- Learn about nature to create a buffer against extreme dissociation with nature
- Partake in green exercise and sense the world around you
- Stop by and smell the flowers
It’s important that you do some of these regularly to maintain the connection. I know it’s not possible to do all of this for a variety of reasons like medical conditions, dense urbanization, finances, etc. so do your best.
The importance of connecting with nature in our lives (summary)
- Improves mood
- Improves self-esteem
- Increases work productivity
- Decreases work and personal stress
- Physical restoration after heavy mental work
- Reduces negative emotions and increases positive emotions
- Increases the potency of physical exercise to improve mental health
- Assists in coping with mental disorders
- Improves memory and attention
- Restores memory and attention
- Promotes altruistic behavior
- Reduces crime and violence
You can buy Edward O. Wilson’s book by clicking the image below.
It’s the first book which popularized this idea.
The link is an affiliate link – If you buy it from India, I get a small commission for selling it.
P.S. May is the mental health awareness month. Go ahead, celebrate it by interacting with nature and other lifeforms. After all, acting on your biophilia could be the easiest way to cope with mental health issues.
P.P.S. This is not a panacea for mental health disorders and this shouldn’t be construed as a replacement for medicines and psychotherapy.
Aditya Shukla is an applied psychologist, author, and guitarist from Pune, India. He loves to design ways to implement & synthesize psychological research to improve as many things as possible – learning instruments, product design, online learning, experiences, social interactions, etc. Loves Sci-fi & Coffee. Can’t whistle.