By Catherine Sanderson, PhD
More than forty thousand employees work in the Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle. But even in this urban environment, employees can walk through trees, watch water flow in an indoor creek, and have meetings in rooms with vine-covered walls. This building includes plants from four hundred different species, ranging from small plants like moss and ferns to trees as tall as fifty feet.
Amazon is one of many companies to deliberately bring nature into the workplace. Airbnb has a wall of plants at its headquarters in San Francisco; Apple features a forest of more than eight thousand trees at its campus in Cupertino, California; and Google’s new headquarters in Mountain View, California, will include trees, extensive landscaping, and bike paths.
Why are companies spending so much money on creating such environments? These choices are clearly based on the considerable scientific research demonstrating the impact of nature on inspiring creativity, reducing stress, and, yes, increasing work productivity.
Spending time in nature is tremendously beneficial for physical as well as psychological well-being. Yet we consistently underestimate the value spending time in nature has for our happiness. People who take even a relatively brief walk outdoors—approximately seventeen minutes long—underestimate the effects of such a walk on their mood and feelings of relaxation.
Now that you know the benefits of nature, take steps to spend more time in nature. Here are some easy ways to start.
Integrate Nature into Your Life
Spending time in nature has a ton of benefits, from improving attention and concentration to reducing depression and anxiety to lowering heart rate and blood pressure. All these effects are strongest when people actually spend time in nature, and there are many easy ways to integrate some form of nature into your everyday life.
And remember that almost any type of nature counts. People who report more exposure to any type of nature in their work environment—from seeing nature outside their window to having a live plant in their office to spending breaks outside—report lower levels of stress and fewer health complaints. Similarly, people who simply stop and photograph signs of nature—such as a tree, plant, or sunset—show higher levels of happiness and joy than those who photograph man-made objects. So, don’t worry if you can’t imagine finding the time for a thirty-minute stroll outside each day; just start by finding small and simple ways of integrating nature into your life in some way.
Plant a Garden
Now, this is a hard one for me, since I decidedly do not have a green thumb. But empirical research tells us that the act of planting and caring for a garden is a great way to reduce stress and give our brains a much-needed break.
Researchers in one study gave people a stressful activity to complete, and then asked them to perform one of two activities. Half the people were asked to read indoors for thirty minutes. The others were asked to garden outside for thirty minutes. Although both these activities led to lower levels of stress, gardening actually reduced stress better than reading.
Gardening also leads to health benefits, including reductions in depression and anxiety and increases in life satisfaction.
Go to the Beach
Many of us have fond memories of spending time on a beach, from building sand castles to swimming in the surf to watching the waves crash on the sand. And there’s a reason why spending time at the beach feels so good: looking at water helps calm the body and reduce arousal. It decreases our heart rate and blood pressure and increases hormones, such as serotonin and endorphins, in the body that make us feel good.
Now, one of the benefits of spending time at the beach is the break it gives our brains from the constant stimulation of daily life. But it’s not just the leisure that makes us feel good when we look at water. Surprisingly, pictures of nature that feature water can lead viewers to more positive states, even more so than nature pictures featuring only green landscaping.
Catherine Sanderson, PhD, is a speaker, the author of “The Positive Shift” and a professor at Amherst College. With degrees from Stanford University and Princeton University, Catherine’s teaching focus is on how we can tweak our mindset to improve the quality of our lives.