Modern living is characterised by cognitive overload, impulsive habits and individual behaviours that have led to a new generation of health problems. Just as shortages of food, eras of never-quite-enough, were solved in the 1960s-1970s in industrialised countries, so food over-consumption became a leading problem; just as eras of challenging transport requiring high energy expenditure ended, so inactivity and sedentary behaviours became common health problems. With these have come increased anxiety, guilt and stress. In a cosy modern world, we have forgotten discomfort, finding it easy to eat, drink or consume pills. We have forgotten about taking time and creating pride.
The health consequences are substantial: mental ill-health, obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardio-vascular diseases, dementias and loneliness are costly and are forecast to increase in incidence. There appear to be few policy solutions that are working for whole populations.
We have undertaken a decade of research into the contexts, effects and outcomes of green exercise and nature-based interventions, showing clearly that physical activity in the presence of nature improves health and well-being. We have found no groups who have not benefitted: all ages, genders, ethnicities and social classes respond seem to respond positively to green exercise. We have shown that all natural environments are beneficial: from urban parks to biodiversity-rich, from small local to large landscapes, from domesticated gardens to the farmed and wild. We coined the phrase dose of nature to articulate that exposure to green exercise is analogous to a medical dose to the body, improving mental and physical health.
We have come to realise that it is the degree of immersive-attention that is key to well-being and happiness. A range of different descriptors have been used to describe a state of mind that results in focus, attention, awareness, immersion. There is clear evidence to show that activities that are immersive and involve focused attention are effective in improving well-being: they cause instant physiological changes by reducing oxygen consumption, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, and increasing releases of serotonin and dopamine.
Immersion arises during walking, moderate running, gardening; is a part of meditative activities such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness therapy; a part of movement-based activities such as tai chi; and a core component to many craft and art activities such as woodwork, painting, knitting and needlework. In some, exercise involves no more than sitting; in others it becomes part of cultural events, such as community dancing and singing of sennin of Tibet, haka (trans: inspired breath) of New Zealand, chain dances of Faroes, reimur of Iceland, shadow puppetry of Indonesia, gospel singing of Black American churches, ceremonial dances of most American Indian tribes, and forest bathing in Japan.
Being highly attentive was an evolutionary advantage to hunter-gatherer-cultivators. Watchful awareness was central to the hunt; was vital for caring for plants and animals across the seasons; was critical to memory creation for sources of water and signals for weather events. Hunter-gatherer-cultivators spent large amounts of time waiting, fully observing keenly, and preparing and eating food. It is a natural state that has become increasingly displaced in material cultures and economies where a life on automatic seems a modern malaise. Yet millions actively choose opportunities for quiet and calm: watching sunsets, beach holidays, drinking with friends, painting, crafts, rock climbing.
These images are from The Nottage in Wivenhoe, a boatbuilding community with centuries of knowledge, overlooking the Essex marshes. One 12 foot clinker-built boat takes about 500 hours to fashion, here under the tutelage of boat-builders Fabian Bush and John Lane. A wise psychological intervention (WPI) to go alongside nature-based interventions would be to search hard for these kinds of opportunities in modern economies and cultures, and then celebrate them more.