Imagine if there was something you could do to elevate your mood, reduce stress, increase creativity, boost memory, build team cohesion, help physical health and maybe even reduce mental illness. Research demonstrates that getting back to nature can do all of that and more for you and your team.
Welcome to episode 50 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we’re exploring seven reasons to get back to nature.
At this point you may be slightly concerned that your podcast feed has been cross contaminated with the “Healthy Living for Hippies” podcast. But, as you know, this podcast is all about research-based tips for improving our leadership. Well, imagine if there was something you could do to elevate your mood, reduce stress, increase creativity, boost memory, build team cohesion, help physical health and maybe even reduce mental illness. As a leader, you would be pretty interested in that for yourself and for your team.
It turns out there are an increasing number of research studies highlighting the importance of people having access to nature. To be clear, this is not just about getting outside or exercising - we already know those things are great for us. These studies are specifically about access to nature such as green areas, park lands and forests. These are peer reviewed studies that are careful to control for things like over-crowding and socio-economic status.
The research highlights seven benefits of getting back to nature:
Elevate Mood - Researchers studied hundreds of tweets posted by people from 160 parks in San Francisco. They found that people are happier in parks. And that level of happiness related to the amount of tree cover and foliage. So people in paved open spaces showed a modest uptick in mood, while those in larger regional parks with a lot of trees and foliage saw a boost in mood equivalent to the mood uplift typically only seen on Twitter at Christmas. And the effect lasted up to four hours. People’s language became more positive, and people shifted to using more collective rather than individualistic language.
Reduce Stress - Looking at a green landscape, even from indoors, lowers your heart rate and stress levels. It shifts you from the sympathetic nervous system (think fight, flight and freeze) to the parasympathetic nervous system - sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ mode.
Increase Creativity - People who had just completed a four day hike in nature were 50% more creative than before they began the hike.
Boost Short Term Memory - Students at the University of Michigan completed a memory test and were then randomly divided into two groups. One group walked in a garden setting, while the other group walked down a city street. The group that walked in nature did 20% than the first time they completed the memory test, while the city street group showed no improvement.
Build Social Cohesion - Researchers studied people living in identical apartment blocks, some with green areas and others that had been paved over. They found the people with greater access to green spaces demonstrated a range of community benefits, including higher levels of social support and cohesion. A similar study in the US even demonstrated 9% reduction in gun violence in areas where empty blocks had been converted to green spaces versus areas that had just been cleaned up.
Help Physical Health - Natural killer cells have an important role to play in our immune system in rejection of tumours and viral infections. Researchers demonstrated that a three day weekend in a forest boosted natural killer cells by 50%, while the same three day weekend in an urban area did nothing to natural killer cell levels. And the effect lasted for at least 30 days, when natural killer cell levels remained 25% higher than baseline.
Reduce Mental Illness - Researchers found poor air quality is correlated with higher rates of bipolar disorder and major depression. Other research in London demonstrated the number of prescriptions for anxiety and depression medications was significantly higher for areas with less greenery, controlling for socio economic status and other factors.
So how does this nature-impact work? The mechanisms for these effects are still largely unclear. It’s not just the about the sight of nature - even natural scents can lead to some benefits. It doesn’t appear to be just about removing the negative effects of crowding or noise either. It’s an emerging area that’s really interesting to follow.
But what does that mean for me and the way I lead. Here are four things to try in the coming week:
Don’t just get outside and exercise, seek out nature - after reading this research I’ve varied my morning running route to take me through an area with more trees and greenery. Think about opportunities you might have to do the same.
Notice nature in your everyday - recently I was facilitating a program in the middle of a major city, but there was a large tree outside the window I could turn my attention to during the breaks. Is there some green area you can see from your workplace? Make sure you actively look at it across your day.
Get the team outside - think about ways you can encourage others in your workplace to get into nature. Maybe it’s a weekend hike or shifting your team retreat to somewhere with more greenery and forest. Or maybe its having a walking team meeting in a local park.
Humble office plants - perhaps your workplace isn’t near much greenery, so you might try to bring some of those cues from nature inside with plants. I’ve seen workplaces use vines and climbers as a cheap and low maintenance way to quickly inject some greenery inside. It plays a little bit to my “Day of the Triffids” phobia, but otherwise it sounds like a great idea.
If you want to learn more about some of this research, I have a link to the excellent Hidden Brain podcast episode in the show notes which includes an interview with psychologist Ming Kuo from the University of Illinois. I’ve also included other references to the research quoted in this podcast.
Thanks for joining me for this podcast. I hope you’re finding the content helpful. A special thanks to those who have already reviewed and shared the podcast with others, and to those who have passed on encouraging feedback via the leadership.today website - I really appreciate it. Now get outside and have a great week.
Aaron J. Schwartz, Peter Sheridan Dodds, Jarlath P. M. O'Neil‐Dunne, Christopher M. Danforth, Taylor H. Ricketts. Visitors to urban greenspace have higher sentiment and lower negativity on Twitter. People and Nature, 2019
Khan A, Plana-Ripoll O, Antonsen S, Brandt J, Geels C, Landecker H, et al. Environmental pollution is associated with increased risk of psychiatric disorders in the US and Denmark. PLoS Biol, 2019
Hidden Brain Podcast - You 2.0: Our Better Nature - https://www.npr.org/2019/08/12/750538458/you-2-0-our-better-nature
Robb C Get Outside! How Nature Enhances Work Productivity. Thrive Global