REI recently posted an entry by Florence Williams on their blog, titled “The Nature Fix: The Three-Day Effect,” about studies being done on the neurological benefits of unplugging completely and spending time outdoors. This is on top of multiple studies done over the last few years, and a recent Time article, also by Williams, suggesting that even 15 minutes of time spent in nature–and not just the wild, but a green area–is beneficial to memory and anxiety.
Anecdotally, I can say that my depression absolutely got worse when I moved away from natural spaces.
I grew up largely in a rural environment. When I was very young we lived in suburbia, but my late childhood and adolescence were spent in a place where I couldn’t hear any highway traffic outside, we could see the neighbors houses through the trees–in the winter, and if you forgot something at the store, you just did without. The only way to get cable was through satellite, and that wasn’t available until several years after we moved, my parents were on dial-up internet until I was in college, and by the time they moved out of that house you still had to go outside to get decent cell reception. Realistically we weren’t super-remote. We were still 15 minutes from town, and half an hour from major shopping and dining areas. But my childhood was defined by the freedom of (mostly) unsupervised outdoor play.
But then I look at my life now, and I wonder, how have I gotten so far away from nature?
Some of it is me. But a lot of it is a cultural problem.
Work, for one. If people were expected to take their work with them when they went on vacation before smart phones, now the expectation is as simple as muscle memory. We have cell reception and data service in many remote wilderness spaces now, so “going on vacation” still comes with the responsibility of checking emails–even if you just forward it to a coworker, the attachment is there. Myself and nearly all of the working adults I know have said they prefer checking email while on vacation because otherwise they come back to so much backlog the week after vacation is so stressful it feels like you shouldn’t have even taken one. That’s the ridiculous working culture in the United States right now.
The speed of information for another. I frequently have to take breaks from Facebook–whether it’s for the length of my workday, the length of the calendar day, or several days at a time–just because the constant onslaught of breaking news, memes, and occasionally even updates on people’s personal lives just becomes overwhelming. But that’s the speed that we move at. Whenever I take those breaks, I feel like I have to spend just as much time catching up on everything I missed, or just stay permanently out of that particular part of the internet (which is more often than not what I do–sorry tumblr friends!).
And as easy as it should be to fix that second one–I’m in control of my own internet usage after all, aren’t I?–the internet is such a permanent fixture of communication that it’s hard to step away completely. Whether it’s habit–grabbing my phone to look at the weather forecast and then mindlessly opening a social media app; pleasure–I want so badly to participate with the Richmond chapter of Hike-It Baby, but hikes are posted online, and up-to-date information about meeting places are discussed on Facebook; or business–in order to communicate with clients and try and network and build a reputation, Facebook and Instagram are as essential as email is to my desk job–our world is now build around digital communication.
Can you break free? Yes. Should you? Also yes. Probably.
Sometimes it feels like, being an urban resident, that I have two lives. I have my regular life, reliant on technology and never more than a few feet away from my phone, and I have my outdoor life, filled with deep breaths and the sound of the wind in the trees.
What I need to do, is to stop craving the outdoor life and seeing it as something separate, something I have to plan for and escape to, and work out a way to find it during the day.
And I think for me that means leaning how to use social media as a business tool rather than as a personal tool. Something I can leave behind, when I’m not actively working.
What is it for you?