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Nature and nurture (and stress)

Just 20 minutes of nature reduces stress hormone levels, a new study reveals. I read about this research while scrolling the news on my phone after a week exposed to some of the most beautiful nature scenes of the North American West Coast: sunset from an ocean-view room in Pismo Beach, sunrise on the side of a Paso Robles mountain vineyard, an aerial view of Crater Lake Oregon from a low-flying plane, and the trees and rolling hills of rural Oregon from the rocky summit of a Spencer Butte hike.

Just 20 minutes of nature, 3 times per week! Who can’t commit to that? Even in Norway, where in some places the sun doesn’t rise at all in winter, I’m told that the night skies offer a banquet of natural beauty for those who don’t mind the cold. More than just a little interesting, this finding raised two questions for me, a researcher of high quality connections at work and a person who doesn’t always do what the research advises.

On the second point, sadly, the scenes I described encapsulated more concentrated time interacting with nature than the previous eight months of sabbatical at University of California Berkeley, an easy walk, bike ride, or car drive to some of the awe-inspiring nature scenes in North America. I asked myself: Why am I spending 20 minutes 3 times per week reading this and others news on Facebook, Twitter, and the Washington Post instead of spending the time walking in nature? (Does reading news feeds on my phone while in nature count as my “nature pill”? My guess based on recent research is that it does not.)

The second question I asked myself was whether it mattered that three of the four nature scenes I described involved meaningful, high-quality connections with people important to me: my husband and kids on spring break, my graduate school roommate and her family (also on spring break), and colleagues in my field of study, some of whom I’ve known for several years and others I anticipate knowing for many years.

In savoring the positive emotions I felt this week—awe, contentment, love, joy, and amusement, to name a few—only one of them, awe, is a direct consequence of being exposed to nature, recent research shows. Awe is the singular feeling I experienced when observing the vastness of Crater Lake from the low-flying plane (a little scary, to be sure). The other emotions—love, contentment, joy, and amusement—have other benefits, but are less associated with nature per se. One of these emotions, love, requires human connections and is present in micro-moments of life as well as in long-term relationships with people with whom are lives are deeply intertwined.

This led me to speculate (with some evidence from my own research to support it) that the combination of “nature and nurture” (in this case, awe and love) is a great prescription for both reducing stress hormones and increasing “cuddle hormones”, particularly if you, like me, have the benefit of a long kids’ spring break or a long (well, longer than 20 minutes) hike with friends or colleagues in your schedule.

Either way, wherever you are reading this (but especially if you, too, are first reading about this research from the perspective of a couch or a chair with nothing except a plane / computer screen for inspiration and no nature in sight), I hope it elevates you to go someplace where you can experience nature and its positive benefits and where you might also be able to create or deepen micro-moments of love, joy, or amusement at the same time.

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