Naaman was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man and highly regarded by the king, but he had leprosy. Eventually, Naaman found his way to the prophet Elisha, who provided Naaman with a cure: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed.” Simple. Easy. Quick fix. …But not so fast.
Naaman didn’t like this suggested cure. He wanted something more dramatic, something with more substance. So he left in a rage. However, his traveling companions said to him, “If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?” Naaman listens, trots down to the river, and dips seven times. Leprosy gone.
We are often a lot like Naaman. If it doesn’t come with a higher cost, we don’t put much value on it. If it’s something worthwhile, then we think it must cost something more. More effort. More time. More money. When it comes to enhancing our mental health, we are often looking for something grandiose. There are great options. Clinicians, such as psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists, can be helpful. Prescription drugs, therapy, apps, and groups can help us manage. All are needed and good in the right place and time. However, one of the best prescriptions for mental health is often overlooked, and it’s easily accessible and free. It can be both preventive and part of the cure.
Getting out into nature is free and the benefits of mental health that come from connecting with nature are not insignificant. Like Naaman, we may be looking for something more, when one of the solutions for enhancing our mental health is so simple.
Research has shown that getting out in nature is associated with better physical and mental health. Kelly McGonigal, a research psychologist, and lecturer at Stanford University writes, “The emotions we are most likely to feel in nature—wonder, awe, curiosity, hope—are natural antidotes to worry, distraction, and depression.”[i]Consider the following:
- Spending as little as 20 minutes a day outdoors helps reduce stress. The National Recreation and Park Association shared how time spent in nature positively impacts mental health by increasing cognitive performance and well-being, and by alleviating illnesses such as depression, attention deficit disorders, and Alzheimer’s.[ii] “In an Austrian study, adding mountain hiking to standard medical treatment reduced suicidal thinking and hopelessness among individuals who have previously attempted suicide.”[iii]
- Local parks are gold mines. Your local park is more beneficial than you might realize. From a CDC essay on parks and health, we learn, “Proximity to parks and green space has been associated with reductions in the self-reported stress, depressive symptoms, and interpersonal violence and with improved attention, self-discipline, social ties, and quality of life.[iv]
- Being around water is therapeutic. When Herman Melville’s fictional Ishmael in Moby-Dick was feeling the “November” of his soul, he found solace in the sea. There is more to our innate desire to go to the lake or beach or to find a quiet spot along a creek. Water lends itself to inner healing. This is why many healing organizations use water as the springboard for working with those struggling with PTSD, addictions, and autism.[v]
- Playing in the dirt is surprisingly helpful. Kelly McGonigal writes, “There is evidence that humans need contact with the earth, with dirt itself, to thrive. The bacteria found in ordinary soil can reduce inflammation in the brain, making dirt an antidepressant.”[vi] Gardening has been found to reduce depression, anxiety, and body mass index, as well increase life satisfaction, quality of life, vigor, mood, psychological wellbeing, and sense of community.[vii]
- Being in forests provides health benefits. Research is showing visiting a forest has both physical and mental benefits. Exposure to forests and trees boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, improves mood, increases the ability to focus, accelerates recovery from surgery, increases energy level, and improves sleep.[viii]
- The sounds of nature are calming. The pitter-patter of rain, leaves rustling in the wind, waves crashing, and streams bubbling are all sounds that can bring calm. The Washington Post recently cited studies that “found a significant positive association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental health well-being, even when accounting for other possible explanations such as education, occupation, or the presence of greenery and water, which have themselves been associated with positive mental health.” The article added that one study “found that listening to short—just six minute—audio clips of birdsongs could reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and paranoia in healthy participants.”[ix]
- Being out in nature stimulates us to be more active.[x] Simply being outside tends to increase our physical activity. This is important because we know that inactivity leads to obesity and a host of diseases. To quote Kelly McGonigal again, “People who are physically active are happier and more satisfied with their lives.”
For Our Own Health
Taking time to get outdoors is not selfish; it is an act of self-care that benefit us and those around us. After discovering the healing attributes of the outdoors, health facilities around the country are adopting “health prescriptions” to get outdoors. Thankfully, we don’t need a doctor to write it. This is one prescription we can legally write and fill on our own…and there are no negative side effects. Get Outdoors!
Part of my job is consulting with employers on enhancing the wellbeing of their employees. It’s gratifying to see more employers opting to include an emphasis on getting outdoors as a part of their wellness strategy. Employers can encourage employees to Get Out! Here are nine suggestions on how to incorporate connecting with nature as a part of your wellbeing strategy.
- Run wellbeing campaigns that focus on the importance and value of getting outdoors.
- Model the value of the outdoors by scheduling outdoor meetings or hosting lunches at a park pavilion.
- Encourage outdoor walking meetings.
- Encourage employees to engage in outdoor activities and with groups who gather to play a sport, garden, hike, fish, bird, hunt, paint, gather mushrooms, or photograph nature.
- Invite speakers from the forestry service, Parks & Rec, or local Audubon societies to come for Lunch & Learns, seminars, or webinars.
- Create a corporate garden.
- Decorate facilities with live plants and adorn walls with nature photos and paintings.
- Consider environmental volunteer efforts that promote sustainability or clean up rivers, streams, lakes, parks, roadways, or urban areas.
- Invite employees to submit selfies from a local park or greenspace, and then have a drawing from among the participants for a fun prize.
However you decide to do it, make sure to tell your employees to Get Out, to get outdoors.
Jack Bruce is the Director of Population Health and Wellbeing for The Benefit Company where he consults with employers on improving the wellbeing of their employees. His favorite means of connecting with nature is through is though birding.
Photographs provided by the author.
- Population Health
- Employee Wellness & Wellbeing
- Human Resources
[i] Kelly McGonigal, PhD, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. P. 156
[ii] “Parks and Recreation is Essential” National Recreation and Park Association. https://www.nrpa.org/our-work/building-a-movement/parks-and-recreation-is-essential/
[iii] Kelly McGonigal, PhD, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. P. 156
[iv] “Parks and health: Aligning Incentives to Create Innovations in Chronic Disease Prevention” CDC. Preventing Chronic Disease, Public Health Research, Practice, and Policy. Barrett, Miller & Frumkin. Volume 11 – April 17, 2014,
[v] See chapter 6 in Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, by Wallace J. Nichols.
[vi] Kelly McGonigal, PhD, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage. P. 171
[vii] Laura Tenenbaum “Digging In The Dirt Really Does Make People Happier.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lauratenenbaum/2020/01/29/digging-in-the-dirt-really-does-make-people-happier/?sh=b02970e31e1c
[viii] New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. https://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/90720.html
[ix] Richard Sima, Washington Post, “Why birds and their songs are good for our mental health.” May 18, 2023
[x] M.H. Depledge and W.J. Bird, “The Blue Gym: Health and wellbeing from our coasts,” Marine Pollution Bulletin 58, no. 7 (July 2009), 947-48.