I’ve recently taken an interest in farming. Why would getting one’s hands dirty on a farm appeal to someone who spends half his life behind a desk? Recent studies showing excessive sitting shortens one’s life gives me with some motivation to get moving. But more compelling than that is our family’s recent acquisition of three goats and a beehive. As I’ve watched my family, and myself, engage with our growing brood of farm creatures, I’ve noticed something change within us: We’re happier. We weren’t unhappy before, but our general sense of well-being has moved up a notch. So, I’ve been thinking that perhaps our high-tech, industrialized culture that glorifies life in the big city may be losing something vital, if it’s leaving people out of touch with nature. At it is! Thousands, if not millions, of people–especially in the inner-cities–are engulfed by asphalt, concrete, brick and mortar, and have no regular contact with the natural world.
The Bible teaches that humans were created to be part of nature. Yet, in at least the last century, the dominant forces in our world have created a growing chasm between humans and the natural environment. In industrialized nations, the increasing accumulation of people in large cities distances them from nature. Could this trend contribute to decreased brain health and a lower sense of well-being for city dwellers?
I discovered that others ponder similar questions, and some are offering solutions to the human need to reconnect with nature. For example, ecotherapy, the concept of improving mental health by time spent in nature, is a growing movement in the United Kingdom. Its proponents cite the first ever study of “green exercise” and its effect on people with mental health problems. A walk in a country park was compared with a walk in an indoor shopping mall. The results on the two groups showed the park walk to have a superior effect on moods compared to the mall walk:
Among park walkers, 71% reported decreased levels of depression, while 22% of mall walkers reported their depression increased and only 45% experienced a decrease in depression.
At a rate of 71%, the park walkers said they felt less tense afterward, and among mall walkers 50% said their feelings of tension had increased.
Park walkers also reported increased self-esteem at a rate of 90%, while of those on the mall walk, 44% said their self-esteem decreased.
Recognizing the benefits of nature on mental health, some countries in Europe have established “care farms” as retreats. The Netherlands has over 1000 care farms that are a fully integrated part of the health service. A few such farms have sprouted up in the United States.
The traditional farm environment provides a double benefit to brain health. In addition to the initial mood boost of being in nature, farms also offer the other basic elements of well-being. Psychologist Martin Seligman, in his book Flourish, identifies well-being as the sum of: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose, and achievement.
As demonstrated in the study comparing the results of park walking and mall walking on mood, being in nature produces positive emotions for many people. Farm work also engages people by drawing both attention and effort to activities such as planting and cultivating fruit and vegetables, and caring for and feeding animals. Farm work is seldom a solitary activity, supporting relationships with others who work on the farm. In the farm’s traditional setting, farmers also develop relationships with the communities they work in and feed. From planting, to harvesting of produce, to raising livestock, farming also contributes to a sense of purpose and meaning and achievement.
The connection between humans and the rest of nature has existed since the birth of humanity. We see it in our romantic attraction to tropical paradises. Our instincts seem to call us back to the Garden of Eden from which God banished Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. While people living near the equator tend to be happier than those further away from it, tropical paradise is not a prerequisite for well-being. Neither is farming. As told in the biblical book of Genesis, when God expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, He sent them out to work the soil. Their son Abel was a shepherd and his brother Cain planted crops. Even before they were sent from Eden, God instructed the first humans to work and keep the garden and gave them responsibility for the animals. Interacting with nature was established as humanity’s first occupation, and can be accomplished through various means.
While the traditional farm offers a model for reconnecting with nature in a way that promotes mental health and well-being, we can bring aspects of nature into our suburban and urban environments and lifestyles. Examples include nature walks, urban gardening, backyard vegetable and flower gardens, and bird feeders. One can start with something as simple as a houseplant, a daily walk in the park, and a pet parakeet. For the more adventurous and resourceful, grander opportunities await.
For examples of adventure and resourcefulness, see these stories told in these short videos from Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Grow Inspired Film Series:
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