I recently came across a post from a psychologist stating the 9 pillars of mental wellness. Whilst I agree with everything on the list, I do find it lacking in one vital pillar- nature.
When I look at mental and physical wellness, I do so through the lens of our evolution- I ask the question: what led us to survive and evolve for millions of years to become the species we are today?
We must remember that we’ve only been citizens of society for the last 10-12,000 years (with the dawn of agriculture), which is about 500 generations.
Compare this to the 50,000+ generations that we were hunter gatherers.
It was through those 50,000 generations and many, many more previous to that that our large brains evolved.
Very little has changed from an evolutionary standpoint in the last 70,000 years (since language became established).
And practically nothing in our brains and how our bodies interact with our environment has changed since the dawn of agriculture and the creation of modern society 10,000 years ago.
That means that when a baby is born today, its brain is not evolved to expect a world of currency, human rights, governments, cities and social media.
That baby’s brain is expecting to encounter the world in which it evolved into- a world where from the moment that baby was born until the moment it died, it would sleep under the stars. Where for every day of its life it would encounter the breeze, the earth beneath its feet, the cycle of sun and moon and all the elements- for better or for worse.
Today, most of us experience nothing like the level of interaction with nature that our ancestors had. And yet we have the same brain as our ancestors- a brain that evolved to anticipate a life lived in the wild.
Therefore, it strikes me deeply that in the midst of a mental health crisis, leading psychologists are not focussing more on the disconnection modern society has with nature.
Yet, examples of how nature improves mental health are cropping up everywhere- ‘forest bathing’ is prescribed by doctors in Japan and doctors in the UK are starting to prescribe gardening.
There are countless anecdotes of people with severe depression hearing bird song or seeing a brilliant sunset- a moment that manages to cut through the fog and allow them for a second to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Recently I was invited to open a new sixth form unit at a school- it was essentially a white room with desks and chairs, and the students had been given a budget to buy something for the room. What did they agree to buy? Plants. It doesn’t matter how sparkling new and expensive a room can be, all we want is to have a connection, however small, with the natural world.
Another example of subconscious longing for nature- what do most people do on holiday? They spend it outside. Whether that’s on a sun lounger or on the beach, hiking or camping- the majority of us without realising it are seeking the chance to connect with nature for a few precious weeks a year.
So, it saddens me that nature is not a pivotal part of the conversation when it comes to mental health and, quite frankly, what it means to be human.
The relationship with man and nature is a lifelong one- always there to teach us something, to allow us to feel gratitude, to feel connected to something, and whether we like it or not- to inflict devastating trauma on us.
I would argue that without nature we are not human at all. Yet, rather than my sentiments being shared widely, I am part of a small group in expressing this.
Without trivialising severe mental health issues, I am going to put my head above the parapet and state that from my own experience with mental health, the times when I have sought solace in nature have given me more of an understanding of my situation and what I have to be thankful for than any other of the pillars of wellness featured in the post above.
Quite simply- we can be scrupulous in maintaining boundaries, sleeping well and taking time for reflection- as the post above suggests, but none of these will deal with mental health problems at their core without the involvement of nature.
We cannot exist as balanced and fulfilled human beings without nature. And yet we take nature’s part in our mental health for granted, or worse- don’t see its importance at all.
Perhaps part of our mental health crisis today is due to the un-diagnosed longing we have for nature. It’s a hole that many of us don’t even realise exists- how can you miss something that you never loved in the first place?
To answer this, let me ask you a question:
When was the last time you experienced joy?
Probably the most wonderful and visceral of all human emotions, true joy happens when we are giving our brains and bodies exactly what it needs to survive- deep connection with loved ones, deep connection with abundant nature and deep connection with ourselves. Without those three connections, we would have died pretty quickly as hunter gatherers.
I would put money on you experiencing joy when you were immersed in nature.
Joy is what we should be seeking in life. You cannot experience joy from an expensive handbag or a million social media likes, or even winning the lottery. True joy seeks the things your mind and body truly crave, so look out for those connections- to nature, your loved ones and yourself.
And whether or not you are suffering with mental health issues, make a commitment to spend more time in nature.
Whenever you are outdoors, listen for birdsong and feel the breeze on your skin, spend a moment marvelling at a tree or looking to the sky.
If you can’t get outside, just focus on the miracle that is your breath. As you inhale and exhale, remind yourself what a privilege it is to be able to breathe.
Because we mustn't forget- whether we like it or not - as much as we need nature, we are nature too, and our breath is perhaps the greatest reminder of that.
On Being’s interview with naturalist Michael McCarthy: https://onbeing.org/programs/nature-joy-and-human-becoming-may2018/
Bruce Parry’s film TAWAI: A Voice From The Forest: https://www.tawai.earth/
Johann Hari’s bestseller Lost Connections: https://thelostconnections.com/