It is now well evidenced that spending time outdoors can be therapeutic for both our physical and mental health. Over the last five years especially, there has been a tsunami of research about therapeutic outdoor experiences. This covers everything from walking, to mindfulness, to gardening, to working with animals, to surfing, to Forest Bathing to wilderness adventure.
But really, most of us don’t need the research – the only evidence we require is our own personal experience. Anyone who spends time outdoors knows it’s therapeutic. No-brainer.
So we know outdoor experiences heal us – whether we trust our own experience or head to the University library to drown in the ocean of peer-reviewed evidence. But why do they heal us? How does it work? What is it about being outdoors that is therapeutic? This article is the third in a series that offers some responses to these questions, based on my own professional practice over the years.
An aspect of evolution that often gets missed was made popular by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. ‘Biophilia’ he wrote in 1993, “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.’ 1
The idea of biophilia was originated by the exceptional Erich Fromm, who in 1973 wrote that it is, “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” 2. The word itself is constructed from ‘bio’ – life and ‘philia’ – love.
As a biologist, Wilson developed the idea beyond Fromm’s human focus, into the social field of all living things (inventing ’sociobiology’ along the way). His thesis was that our emotional affiliation with other living organisms is part of our evolutionary heritage.
What I find most striking about Wilson’s definition, is that the ’emotional affiliation’ we have to other living organisms is ‘innate’. It’s in our nature.
Meanwhile, Fromm adds love to the lexicon. Combining them, biophilia is an innate love of living things. We love nature. We have evolved that way. Loving it has proffered us evolutionary advantage. Loving it has allowed us to survive. Not loving it will be the end of us.
When outdoors we literally come to our senses. They attune to our earthy reality and we feel closer to nature.
Of course, ecologically we are never apart from nature. We could’t survive without it for more than a few minutes. But we don’t often feel this way because modern living creates an illusion of separation, one that is profoundly pernicious. But outdoors, our senses reveal the material truth: we are part of nature.
The sensation of being in – and of – nature stimulates a lush richness of feelings and emotions. Surrender, tolerance, desperation, ecstasy, vulnerability, humility, tenacity, passion, fear, joy, inspiration, intimacy, awe, desire …
These connect us to the giddy wonder of our evolved capabilities. To adapt, create, grow, respond, navigate, care – and to love. They also bring the sobering fall of our frailty. The stark apprehension of our gossamer dependance on nature’s entire myriad tracery.
Being outdoors allows us to sense life directly, as a whole. All at once in the blood-and-bone certainty of the flesh. When we love nature we feel it most profoundly in the mountains. In the forests and deserts. As river, wave, eddy, ocean.
When our ‘passionate love of life and all that is alive’ is allowed to flourish through intimate, somatic engagement with the rest of nature, our illusory separation becomes untenable. And then ridiculous. Our senses reveal the vast net, each one of us a single tiny knot. Each one of us tied in tight, regardless of industrial attempts to cut us out.
Ultimately, this changes the way we behave toward nature itself. We come to experience it as it is: the matrix of all life, including our own. This can compel us to protect, conserve and regenerate it. To live within nature’s limits, realising they are our own limits too.
Being outdoors offers this boundless healing potential to both person and planet. It invites a full reciprocal exchange, it calls us into deep empathy. It entangles us irrevocably into life’s pattern.
We love nature, all that is alive. We have evolved that way.
- Kellert, S. R., & Wilson, E. O. (1993). The Biophilia hypothesis. Washington, D.C: Island Press.
- Fromm, E. (1973). The anatomy of human destructiveness. New York: Fawcett.