The Problem with the Research into Wellness and the Outdoors

Photo: Marcel Slootheer

Early on in my Outside 365 challenge, I read The Nature Fix by Florence Williams. Her book essentially recaps all of the current research examing how the outdoors impacts our wellness and wholeness as human beings. If you’re at all interested in how the outdoors affects our well being—and hopefully you are if you’re reading this right now—I highly recommend giving this book a read.

The one problem that I have with most of the scientific research being conducted in this realm is that it all seems to operate along the same basic lines. All of the research essentially asks, “what is the minimum dose of nature that we can give people that will positively impact their well being?” The key differences between the various forms of research, as far as I can tell, are along the lines of what types of doses of nature to give people, and how the positive impact on their well being is measure. 

Some of the doses are merely exposure to green space and plants, whereas others are true immersive wilderness experiences. Some of the positive impacts are in mental and emotional health, whereas others relate to cognitive performance in work and school. And of course, the physical benefits are already largely taken for granted.

But as I read about all of this research, I couldn’t help but think to myself: “They’re asking the wrong question!”

The question shouldn’t be, “What’s the minimum amount of time that I need to pull myself away from my video game console in order to remain a well-rounded, mostly-functional human?” The question should be, “How do I inject the absolute maximum amount of time in the outdoors into my daily life?!”

Because the answers that the research is finding just… isn’t much exposure to nature in the grand scheme of things. The recommended dose varies depending on the type of exposure, but a few hours per week in a green space outdoors coupled with one weekend getaway to a natural area per month should do it for most people. At least, according to the research...

Perhaps “most people” is the important qualifier. You and I may not be most people. Shit, I can get that much nature in my life without even thinking about it. If I only spend 4-5 hours outside in a given week, I am NOT in a good place mentally or emotionally! Sometimes I feel like I need at least that amount of nature immersion on a daily basis in order to not go insane.

I’m happy that the scientists are gathering concrete data to show just how important living life outdoors is to our human flourishing, but it’s a conclusion that naturalist writers have known for centuries. So great, the science ways supports what we already knew to be true.


But we need to move beyond the science. We need to move beyond the empirically verified conclusions. Just checking a box and saying, “Hey, I hit my number of outdoor hours for the week,” misses the point entirely. 

We need to forge a new connection to nature. A new connection to the natural world. And it doesn’t happen by just meeting our minimum nature dosage.

(Note to head off angry messages: Of course this is how the scientific research is being run, because that's the only true way to measure these sorts of things empirically. Even as an English major, I understand that (sort of). But the point is that we need to take the scientific findings, say "thank you," and then proceed to move beyond the data.)

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