Nature is a surprising force multiplier. It has the ability to improve our mental faculties and well-being without us even noticing it. It’s probably no coincidence, and we have evolved to seek out greener pastures, sunnier fields, healthier vegetation, and so on. Numerous studies have demonstrated the mental impact of surrounding yourself with elements of nature.
This doesn’t mean that if you work in an office or have a similar indoor job, you need to resign immediately and move to a forest. It doesn’t matter where you are, but what you can do to take advantage of the world around you—you can easily make it part of your daily routine, as per this chapter’s theme. There are several quick and easy things you can change in your daily environment so that you are closer to nature and taking advantage of all the benefits the natural world can provide.
Nature can be calming, soothing, inspiring, and grounding, and it also helps you focus and remember better. More specifically, just staring at an image merely associated with nature has been found to improve your working mindset. The Journal of Environmental Psychology published a study by University of Melbourne’s Kate Lee and a group of colleagues about the power of looking at green.
The experiment asked participants to engage in a long and tedious activity that required complete concentration and a high attention to detail for a long time.
At the midway point, half the participants took a forty-second break and looked at an image of a green rooftop covered with vegetation, while the other half looked at an image of a concrete rooftop. The study found that interrupting a tedious, attention-demanding task with the green rooftop dramatically improved focus and resulted in better overall performance on their task.
The participants reported that it felt more restorative, and they performed especially well in their response times, lessened their fluctuation in reactions, and made fewer errors of omission.
This is one of the easiest things to implement in a busy daily routine. Hanging a painting, sticking up a poster, or even just searching the Internet will do the trick. A picture or computer background will suffice. Even better, set an alarm and go for a quick walk outside and see nature up close if you can. A quick forty-second look, and you’ll be ready to return to any task.
Is this phenomenon because something in us subconsciously recognizes the primacy of nature? Is green an innately soothing color because it’s what we were surrounded by for millennia? Is there really something to the calming power of nature? It seems so, and the next few studies continue to show the same trend.
Harsh lighting and artificial light are everywhere. Long gone are the days where we woke with the sun and slept when it set. In today’s modern world, we’re always trying to fit in as much work as we can, and we’re not always in the best atmosphere to do so. Several studies prove working in natural light is beneficial to our mental well-being and happiness.
The Neuroscience Program at Northwestern University showed a strong relationship between workplace daylight exposure and office workers’ sleep, activity, and quality of life.
According to the study, employees slept forty-six minutes more per night on average if they worked in natural light. They also slept more soundly and efficiently and reported a higher quality of life than those who did not work in natural light. Workers in windowless environments had lower scores in their physical health and vitality than those who worked near daylight. They also reported poorer sleep quality, with sleep disturbances and daytime dysfunction.
Natural light has many health-related benefits and can feel mentally more satisfying as well. A lack of natural light has been documented to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythms, which are behavioral changes that respond to light and darkness in one’s environment. By disturbing our circadian rhythms, a lack of natural light can cause abnormal sleep patterns and also seasonal affective disorder, which results in multiple symptoms such as depression and lethargy.
All of this means that without natural light, your body will be significantly less productive and energized. If you can, try to change your work environment so that you are exposed to natural light as much as possible. If this is impossible, like if you work in a windowless office, you can buy lamps that simulate natural light.
A study in Britain, published in The Responsible Workplace, also supported the importance of natural light. The study showed that of the many factors that influenced the occupants’ level of satisfaction with a building, windows were the number-one determinant. Natural light renovations have been shown to result in happy workers and a better overall work environment, with less absenteeism and fewer illnesses. Furthermore, because of worker satisfaction from the better lighting, the employees also increased their productivity.
In a final study on natural light, Christopher Jung of the University of Colorado showed that natural light can reduce our level of cortisol, which means we will feel less stressed under natural light conditions. Natural light literally calms us down on a biological and hormonal level.
With all of these benefits of natural light, it seems foolish to prevent ourselves from being exposed to it as often as we can. So stop working like a hermit and open your windows to the sun. If you can’t do this, find a way to be exposed to natural light, with a lamp that simulates it if you really have to. Take a walk on your lunch break, sit by a window when you can, or take your work elsewhere. Find a way to bask in the sun’s rays and you’ll feel all the better for it. Just wear sunscreen from time to time.
On a related note, the more you learn about plants, the more you realize that they will always have additional benefits. If you are someone who likes to have plants or vegetation around, even if it’s just because you think they’re pretty or you needed a simple way to decorate, you’re already one step ahead of the game.
Several studies have proven the benefits of working with plants around you, even if it’s just that small shrub in the corner. One of these studies demonstrated that employees randomly assigned to work in a room filled with plants outperformed those who didn’t have access to plants.
Another study, conducted in the UK and the Netherlands by Marlon Nieuwenhuis from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, addressed employee perception of plants. When office workers could see a plant from their desks, their perceptions of air quality, concentration, and workplace satisfaction and their objective measures of productivity all increased.
So why are plants so beneficial for our mental well-being and performance? We are all aware of the oxygen-providing attribute of plants, but they are also able to suck carbon dioxide and other relatively benign toxins from the air. This is why the workers perceived cleaner and more concentrated air in their offices—whether it was true or not. But plants also appear to provide a considerable overall calming effect, and they’ve been known to reduce levels of stress. This is perfect for stressful environments like your work. In addition, plants can help absorb noise, and quiet is often essential for a working environment.
It’s not entirely clear just why plants can have such a positive impact on us mentally. Perhaps it’s just subconscious, or a way to take us out of a stressful work environment by reminding us what’s outside or waiting for us when we are finished. Perhaps it’s the placebo effect taking hold thanks to the supposedly fresher air we are sucking in. Regardless, the evidence is undeniable and, again, easy to implement as part of a daily routine.
A final demonstration of the power of nature lies in research regarding the most popular pictures and videos on the Internet. At last, after all those hours spent staring at adorable newborn pandas or sleeping kittens, the research is finally here to back you up. Maybe that urge to look at cute pictures of baby animals isn’t as unproductive as you once thought. You can finally let go of the guilt you’ve been harboring for “wasting time.”
A Japanese research paper appropriately titled “The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus” concluded that looking at cute animal images at work could boost your focus, attention to detail, and overall performance on a task. The study, conducted by Hiroshi Nottono of the University of Hiroshima, studied three different groups of students as they performed several tasks. These ranged from visual tasks to those involving dexterity, with one being similar to the American board game Operation. Each group attempted its respective activity twice—the first time without looking at any images, and the second time after looking at a series of pictures. These images could have included baby animals, adult animals, or neutral subjects such as foods.
Students who viewed cute animal pictures performed far better at their tasks than their peers who saw pictures of adult animals or food. There are many theorized explanations linked to this improvement.
One suggested reason was related to a behavioral tendency in humans to slow down their speech when talking to babies, puppies, and kittens. Researchers speculated that looking at images of baby animals might have had a similar effect in slowing not just speech but the behavior of the students. As such, they were more careful and attentive during their tasks and performed more accurately than their peers.
Another offered explanation was to do with nurturing instincts that may have been brought up when looking at the young animals. The researchers suspected that perhaps those who received an increase in nurturing feelings might have performed better in care-related tasks that aimed to help someone, even if it was only in the form of a board game.
Whatever the reason, the study determined that the simple act of looking at the photos was enough to increase focus and attention when they were viewed before a task. It stated that “if viewing cute things makes the viewer more attentive, the performance of a non-motor perceptual task would also be improved.”
So if you’ve been secretly viewing these cute pictures at your desk in the office, trying to hide the fact that you may be doing something unproductive, next time, just go ahead. Chances are you could be boosting your productivity without even knowing it.
The world around us can be far more helpful to boosting our brains than we realize. Nature is all around us and is so easily accessible that it would be a complete waste not to take advantage of everything it can give us. Ultimately, the why is not so important as it is to simply realize the benefits.