Written in collaboration with Naomi Arbit.
“Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” – Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman was onto something. It’s no coincidence that when I mentally list the happiest, wisest people I know, they all share a profound appreciation for the natural world around them. They also happen to be mindful, compassionate individuals who possess both wisdom of mind, and of heart. For years, I tried to delineate between the chicken and the egg of this pattern, trying to eek out ways I could spread this mindfulness to others. Now I know that these ideas are so deeply entwined they cannot be parsed out in this way. And yet, studying this profound interaction is still of utmost importance.
In February, my sister and I traveled to the Philippines to teach university students and community leaders in the Philippines about biophilia, or a love for nature and living things. In future posts, I will talk about how one can bring about biophilia in their life, or even how to teach students about biophilia and why this is important. But, for now, I wanted to explain the concept of biophilia and outline why it can be an important gateway to empowerment for both individuals and whole communities.
The meaning of biophilia, a term originally used by German psychologist and philosopher Eric Fromm, was expanded and defined by Edward O. Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia. According to Wilson, biophilia literally means “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Kellert & Wilson, p. 416). With the rise of industrialization and technology, the impacts of biophilia have been undervalued and underevaluated. Yet, new research is showing that biophilia has resounding impacts; indeed, biophilia not only influences the physical or psychological health of individuals, but it also impacts the economic productivity and social fiber of communities as a whole.
Though we have accumulated much research proving the pivotal connections between health and biophilia, we’ll share a few key findings with you now. First, connectedness to nature is associated with improved immune response and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Having more green space in one’s community has been linked to decreased rates of cancer and strokes. Cognitively, even seeing nature can fire up neurons in the parahippocampal gyrus, which increases feelings of wellness and bolsters one’s motivation for positive behavioral change.
Biophilia can strengthen communities as well. Becauase biophilia is associated with decreased days of illness from work and reduced mental stress and fatigue, the job performance of individuals and thus communities as a whole will be boosted. Biophilia can also help student performance on exams, leading to a more educated youth and a more productive workforce in the long-term. Lastly, communities that incorporate biophilia have lower crime rates, leading to a safer community overall.
For many people, these positive impacts seem clear and obvious; perhaps biophilia has always played a key role in their individual and community-level happiness. For others, the scientific backing behind the importance of nature might come as more of a surprise, understandably so since this field of research has been downplayed for years. Now the question becomes how to bring more biophilia into your own life, regardless of location or circumstance. Therein lies the challenge, and also the opportunity. Stay tuned for more!