This post is inspired by Lesson 3 of The Lift Project, a cutting-edge depression and anxiety program. Developed by lifestyle medicine expert Darren Morton, Ph.D., the program is utilized by companies and private groups. Click here to learn more.
The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside.
– Anne Frank –
Main point: immerse yourself in an uplifting physical environment.
As you may recall from this blog post, the limbic system is the part of the brain involved in emotion and behavior. Basically, what affects your limbic system will affect how you feel–happiness, sadness, anger: each emotion springs from this brain region.
Even though the “Limbo” sits in a comfy cranium away from the outside world, it still knows what’s happening because it receives messages from the environment. Your Limbo receives cues like sights, sounds, and smells from nerves.
So, your physical environment has a profound effect on your Limbo and hence, your emotional state. The good news? Since your Limbo is wired to your senses like sight, you can deliberately send uplifting messages to it so you feel more upbeat!
Did you know that when your optic nerves send messages from your retinas, or eyes, to your brain to create “sight,” the messages first go to the Limbo? In other words, what you see impacts your mood.
Studies show that your Limbo really likes the sight of natural environments. Functional MRI studies show that natural landscape scenes light up Limbo parts associated with positivity. In contrast, city scenes increase activity in the part of the Limbo associated with threat and stress. Views of natural environments are linked to better performance in the workplace and enhanced academic performance in schools.
To summarize, natural environments tend to make us more positive and productive, less stressed, and better academic performers.
How much time do we need in a natural environment to experience these benefits?
Researchers have found that we need a 10,000 LUX level of light, equivalent to being directly in the sun, for 30 minutes each day.
Morning light seems to be especially good as it has a blue tinge because its wavelength is shorter. Our Limbo notices the blue tinge, assumes it is morning time, and kicks us into “rise and shine mode”–we feel more awake and alert.
The Natural Environment
Natural environments can lift us emotionally, in rich and profound ways.
As the Greek philosopher Aristotle proposed, we are seemingly designed to inhabit such places. When we gaze at mountains, hike through a valley, or picnic in a park, our limbic systems come alive. Our sense of sight, sound, and smell send “happy, happy” messages to the Limbo. We feel relaxed…spiritual, even.
More than 30 studies have shown that exposure to natural environments make people feel more positive and less negative.
Unfortunately, many people live in artificial environments like cities and work indoors. As we increasingly stay indoors, we miss out on the benefits of being outdoors. We also tend to socialize and spend time online. Unsurprisingly, a large study conducted in the United States in 2014 found a significant connection between depression and media use.
It’s time to go au naturel–return to the great outdoors! Clothed, of course.
Here are 2 challenges to put this lesson into practice this week.
- Get a pre-breakfast workout in.
Make an effort to “get outside while the sun shines” for at least 30 minutes each day. While you are outside, perform some moderate-intensity physical activity so you get a double happiness hit by moving dynamically while immersing in an uplifting natural environment.
A United Kingdom study found physically active people in natural environments, like woods or forests, have about half the risk of suffering from poor mental health then those who are physically active…but not in natural environments (think gyms, indoor tennis courts, etc.).
Want to be “extra”? Wake up early and exercise outdoors, in the sun, before breakfast. You’ll get a triple hit of uplifting blue light, dynamic movement, and time in a natural environment. Win. Win. Win.
2. See a sunrise.
Find a natural environment in which to see a sunrise. Don’t stare at the sun directly, but be there when it happens. Bring a friend. Enjoy the moment together. Test and see if the morning light gives you a lift and starts your day right.
Main point: Take your Limbo to its “happy place” and it can help you to be happy, too!
Want to Learn More?
Here are some fun resources related to this blog post content:
This article in Scientific American dives deeper into why scents affect people’s mood and work performance.
Check out this interesting TED talk titled “Get hooked on nature.”