What does being in nature have to do with our happiness, health or productivity? Apparently, everything.
Meet Florence Williams
If you haven’t picked up Florence William’s latest book, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, you should. Florence goes into the neuroscience behind biophilia, forest bathing, and why regularly being in nature really matters for our health, happiness and productivity. I was super excited to catch her in the middle of a very busy book tour and ask her a few questions about her background and her research.
Leigh Stringer: When you are at a dinner party, what do you tell people that you do for a living?
Florence Williams: I’m a science journalist. I specialize in health science and the environment. I am a visiting scholar at George Washington University in their Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and a fellow at a nonprofit in Chicago, the Center for Humans and Nature.
LS: And how did you get into that particular field?
FW: My first job out of college was working for an environmental newspaper in Colorado called High Country News. Even though it called itself a newspaper at the time, it really is more of a magazine and allowed me to write some longer pieces. It was a fun place to start out my writing career because the paper covered ten states. I would just like hop in my little Ford Fiesta reporting on stories on Indian reservations or one of the many national forests in the area. Eventually, a couple of years later, I got a Master in Fine Arts from the University of Montana with a focus on creative writing for non-fiction. I started doing more essays and longer form pieces.
LS: At what point did you start writing books?
FW: I wrote my first book in the 2012, called Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. We were looking at this organ through an environmental history lens, specifically how modern life has really changed breast health. The book covers things like implants and breast milk toxins. There is a dark message that the environment can hurt you. Of course it can also help us, which is what my latest book is all about.
LS: So how did you get from Colorado to Washington DC?
FW: In 2012, my husband got a job offer in DC to work for a non-profit. Interestingly, even though I grew up in cities on the East coast, it had been two decades since I lived in a city. When we moved, I really noticed the noise pollution, air pollution and concrete everywhere.
LS: So we all need more nature in our lives!
FW: We know that air pollution indoors is ten times worse than outdoors. This is significant given the amount of time we spend inside buildings. Also, we need full spectrum light. We need Vitamin D. We need fresh air. These are practical elements that help us work at our best level.
I recently visited Singapore, and there they have very strong policies in place that require developers to replace any green space that new buildings displace. You have to do more than just landscape the perimeter of your building, you have to build green roofs and/or vertical gardens onto the outside to meet the requirements. Every major building there has incredible gardens that are integrated into the architecture. Even housing projects for the working middle class have a well-maintained courtyard, parks, connector corridors, or green corridors connecting parks.
There are 300,000 kilometers of green trails and corridors. This is remarkable because as a country, green space overall in Singapore has increased from 38% to 49% in the last 30 years even as the population has exploded (from 1.7 million people in 1960 to 5.6 million in 2016). Singapore is the third densest city on the planet.
The fact that they are able to do this is really inspiring. They have done a great job of incorporating and integrating both biodiversity and green space. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the reverse has happened. DC has lost its “green canopy” which used to be 50% of our land area in 1950 and is now at 35%.
LS: You have done research on noise and its impact on us physically or psychologically. Can you talk about this?
Florence Williams: Most of the studies on noise and its impact on us have been done in Europe where health care is more progressive and there are good health records. They found that people who live in regions with high noise from air travel are at higher risk for cardiovascular and stress-related disease and a larger percentage of them are taking anxiety medications. There is a pretty direct correlation.
There is also disturbing data looking at school children whose schools are under a flight path. There are learning delays in children whose day is interrupted by loud noises like planes. Even though cognitively we know these planes are not a threat, our nervous system still responds to them.
On the other hand, we know that many sounds in nature are associated with lower stress level and feelings of relaxation, restoration and vitality. For example, there have been some interesting studies where children who listen to bird song during the lunch hour are more alert and more attentive after lunch than kids who do not. In countries like Finland, children are given recess for 15 minutes every hour and are encouraged to go outside and run around. When they come back inside, they are able to concentrate more on their lessons. By comparison, in Washington DC, only 10% of children are meeting recess requirements.
LS: For those of us who spend most of our time indoors, how can we bring the outside in?
FW: There are benefits to listening to nature sounds even if it is piped in. For example, in the UK, the BBC actually pipes in in birdsong for their employees for a few minutes every day. British Petroleum gas stations are piping in bird song into their bathrooms because they think that that makes people more relaxed and have a more pleasant experience. The Schiphol airport in Amsterdam is also piping in bird song into their relaxation lounge, and they have fake trees in the airport as well. One of the psychologists I spoke with recently recommended that people get 20 minutes of nature sound every day.
LS: How do we encourage more people to get outside?
FW: There is a lot happening on the grassroots level with organizations like Outdoor Afro. They are trying to get urban populations outside and walking. There is a growing urban gardening and tree planting movement, which is really encouraging. I think the most important place for these ideas to take root is in schools, and parents need to advocate for kids to get outside more, to engage in environmental education, and to start connecting to nature so that when they grow up and start working in office buildings, they will demand that those buildings integrate nature. We have to reconnect children to nature because right now, we have lost that connectivity. If you look at the statistics of how much time kids spend outside in nature today versus one generation ago, it’s just astonishing. Only 10% of teens spend time outside every day.
In Oregon, Measure 99, just passed in the last election, provides state lottery money to fund 5th and 6th graders getting outdoors for a week at their school. I think more parents are becoming alarmed at the disconnection their children have with nature they are seeing how technology is eating all their children’s time. I think right now we’re at a crossroads. Are we going to allow this disconnection to get deeper or are we going to do something about it?
LS: What projects are you working on (other than your latest book) that you would like us to know about?
FW: I’ve created an original podcast for Audible called Breasts Unbound (winner of the Gracie Award for original online programming), and one for Outside Magazine, about the girl scouts as an entry point to adventure and the outdoors coming out this May. I also writing a monthly column for REI called The Nature Fix.
For those of you who want to know more about Florence and her work, here are some links:
Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning, Outside Magazine
This is Your Brain on Nature, National Geographic Magazine
Is Your Noisy Neighborhood Slowly Killing You? Mother Jones
Why Fractals Are So Soothing, The Atlantic
Leigh Stringer is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture, engineering and building technology firm and is the author of The Healthy Workplace: How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line.