Even when we're boxed into pristine cubicles in urban environments with the flickering of unnatural fluorescent lights overhead, we tend to fill our spaces with captured moments of the outdoors. Lobbies will be filled with rock formations and cascading waterfalls. Images of sunsets, mountaintop views, flowers, and animals drinking from creeks will line the walls. When we get home and can't fall asleep, we'll turn on the sound of thunderstorms and ocean waves.
Something draws us to the outdoors. What is it?
We Can Find Our Place in the World
One of the major draws of being outdoors is to get a sense of perspective. Too often, our daily lives are small—too small. The walls start closing in on us and we can get swept up in petty work drama, envious thoughts about our friends' curated social media feeds, and worry about everything from how white our teeth are to whether our shoes are in style. All of that fades away when we step into the wonder of the great outdoors. It's hard to hold onto those worries when you're staring up at the open sky and realizing your place in a vast universe.
We feel our anger and anxiety wash away when we're looking out over a vast canyon or watching a magnificent waterfall.
Being among nature's most amazing features has a way of putting us in our place, of reminding us that we are part of something so much bigger than ourselves, and of helping us to focus on what really matters.
We Are Wired for It
Human beings are wired for being outside. Need evidence? Look at the way our brains and bodies respond when we spend time in nature.
In one study, participants took a walk of identical length either through a forest or through an urban setting. Their heart rates and cortisol levels (which are linked to stress) were measured. Those who walked through the forest had less stress and reported more positive thoughts.
Being in nature also has a positive impact on our cognitive function. One study looked at groups of hikers. One set of groups was about to embark on a four-day hike while the other groups had just returned from it. The groups that had already completed their hikes performed much better on cognitive tests like puzzles. In fact, they were 50% more effective at completing the tasks.
Even when the displays of nature are artificial, our brains respond positively to them. Another study showed images to participants while measuring their brains' response. Areas of the brain associated with positive experiences lit up when the viewers were shown natural images, and this was not the case when they were shown images associated with urban settings. The researchers concluded that there is "an inherent preference towards nature-friendly living."
We Seek Adventure
Since the dawn of human history, poets and artists have been capturing how important nature is to human beings in their creations. As the world has gotten more industrialized, more urban, further removed from our natural settings, our creative works have kept coming back to these spaces. We use them as settings for our fantasies and reflections of our purpose in life.
Those who already spend as much of their time as they can outside have realized the benefits even if they don't know about the studies to back them up. Simply put, they feel happier, think clearer, and move more when they get outside. They feel the results every time they strap on a pair of hiking boots or climb into a kayak. They sense the worry melting from them when they reach the top of a mountain trail or light a campfire. They hear the wild calling them, and they answer.