Doing our best at work takes a lot of effort. But I recently learned that there’s also a way to become better at work tasks like problem-solving and decision-making that doesn’t actually take much effort at all.
The answer, according to a raft of new research, is to spend more time in nature—even if it’s just time spent in our backyard, or a neighborhood park.
That’s one lesson I learned from reading journalist Florence Williams. Her book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative, explores what science has to say about the health effects of spending time in nature. The research she cites finds benefits not just for our physical health, but for our mental and cognitive health as well.
In fact, some pediatricians are so convinced by the data on nature’s health benefits that they are writing prescriptions for young patients and their families to visit nearby parks. Williams finds that nature experiences, specifically time spent in nature without using a phone or other distracting device can:
- Boost creativity during and after the experience
- Strengthen the immune system
- Improve memory and attention
- Increase feelings of happiness
- Most directly relevant to work, time in nature seems to benefit the prefrontal cortex, “the brain geography that deals with cognitive and executive functions, such as planning, problem solving, and decision making,” Williams explains.
One theory for why the prefrontal cortex benefits from nature time is that the experience of looking at trees, listening to waves, or picnicking on the lawn under a billowing sky allows this “command center” of the brain to rest, much like you might a muscle after a hard workout. After nature time, your mind returns to difficult tasks with a renewed energy. Another reason is that time spent in nature lowers blood pressure and stress hormones, and stress can interrupt our ability to think clearly.
Just how much nature is needed, or what kind of immersion is required—(a long hike, or merely a trip to the local park?)—to benefit health are questions Williams investigates in her writing, with no one final answer. However, it seems that even having a view of trees and grass out a window is enough to increase health. Research has shown, for instance, that students with those views perform better in school, says Williams. Longer time in nature, then, is likely to have even stronger effects.
Spring couldn’t be a better time for most of us to take this message to heart, whether we’re headed out on spring break, or just planning to gawk at some blooming flowers in a nearby park. Why not write yourself a nature prescription, and take a stroll outside?