'Friluftsliv' ...ever heard of it? (clue: the connection between mindset and nature)
'Friluftsliv' ...I'd not heard of it either until I began doing a tonne of research on the relationship between our natural world and the impact on our health and mindset.
Friluftsliv, a word coined by Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen, literally translating to ‘free air life’ is the word used to broadly describe the connection to nature that is so strong in Norway. The word first appeared in Ibsen’s poem, ‘On The Heights’ which describes a man who ventures out into the wilderness in search of solitude as to clear his mind and plan for the future.
The essence of 'Frilufstliv' is the simplicity with which people can engage with nature in a meaningful way,” says Børge Dahle. This philosophy embodies the idea that returning to nature, is returning home.
This is something I have been drawn to more and more over the last few years. I know the power it has on my own mindset and ability to dramatically expand my way of interacting with the world. It literally helps cut through the 'noise' in my mind and brings me down from the head to the heart.
This is one of the ways I'll be shifting my coaching practice.
I know it's not just me who benefits from the power of 'nature therapy' and so it will become an integral part of my work with clients to intensify the experience and the results that can be achieved.
By living in a world of vast urbanisation, straight lines and electric lighting, we create a disharmony (or more correctly, discord) between natures rhythms and our own natural rhythms. We evolved in a world of 'fractal' structures: waves, mountains, fire, alongside seasonal rhythms, daily rhythms and different kinds of biological rhythms. These structures and rhythms are ingrained in us as we have evolved.
Now we live in a technologically advanced society, we don't rely on these natural rhythms anymore, or not nearly to the extent we did. So we are causing a disharmony with these rhythms which leads to stress, fatigue and low self-esteem.
'Friluftsliv' is about returning to nature and those rhythms and synchronising your body clock back to natures. We have a limbic system that takes in the senses and where we also have our memory. By opening these senses to nature, Dr Hans Gelter describes it as becoming "inter-connected" with nature.
Whatever the weather... Scandinavians don't run for cover on rainy days. This is about embracing the elements, throwing on a duvet coat and finding joy in even the gloomiest of forecasts - it's about changing your mindset.
"Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost." That's the dramatic opening to a 2008 paper describing the promise of so-called "nature therapy" — or, as a non-academic might call it, "time outside.
Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity.
Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull for our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state. Researchers believe that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.
Go to a Forest. Walk slowly. Breathe. Open all your senses.
This is the healing way of Shinrin-yoku Forest Therapy, the medicine of simply being in the forest.
A University in Japan found that Shinrin-Yoku (translated as forest bathing in English) had a huge impact on our mental and physical health too. They believe that because humans evolved to be in nature that actually this is where we flourish best. F orest bathing literally means being in nature, sitting, walking and just being in forests. Throughout Japan they have different walks and trails that have equipment within it that can measure blood pressure and monitor heart rates as people are in the forest giving concrete evidence as to how nature is actually physically affecting them.
We can also consider the mindfulness perspective. Being in nature helps us to become present. Forest bathing refers to being in an environment where all your senses are engaged. Our sensory system evolved in the natural world and when we’re in those spaces, our brains become relaxed because these are things that we were designed to look at, hear and to smell.
Neuroscientists, especially in the U.K. and U.S., are starting to look at how people’s brains respond to different environments. What they’re seeing is that if their volunteers are walking through a city or noisy area, their brains are doing different things than if they are walking in a park. The frontal lobe, the part of our brain that’s hyper-engaged in modern life, deactivates a little when you are outside. Alpha waves, which indicate a calm but alert state, grow stronger. When psychologists talk about flow there seems to be a lot of alpha engagement there. Buddhist monks, meditators, are also great at engaging alpha waves.
Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology, which was developed by Theodore Roszak. Ecotherapy, in many cases, stems from the belief that people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from our environment.
Scientists continue to debate the evidence around ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’. They ask could it be that, instead of being sensitive to changes in the seasons, we’re actually suffering from a disconnection with nature?
Psychiatrist Dr Norman Rosenthal, who first described SAD, attributes these positive feelings to sunlight. “When we’re outside, bright light coming through the eyes boosts the secretion of serotonin, while UV rays on the skin stimulates endorphins. All of this contributes to an improvement in mood.”
Dr Rosenthal also recognises the specific and significant role that nature can play in our emotional wellbeing. “Being indoors creates a world that’s compartmentalised from the changing weather, landscapes and feelings. In contrast, being outside enriches our lives. Experiencing the unpredictability of the weather – a breeze over your face or an unexpected rainfall – adds variety to our lives. Smells evoke memories and thoughts and connecting with nature allows us to escape monotony,” he says.
But as well as helping us to heal our minds, contact with nature can transform us. For several years, Steve Taylor (a psychology lecturer and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality) has been researching into what he calls ‘awakening experiences’ – moments when our vision of our surroundings becomes more intense (so that they become more beautiful and meaningful than normal), and we feel a sense of connectedness to them, and towards other people. The world may somehow seem harmonious and meaningful, as a strong feeling of well-being fills us
Of course, countless poets have written of the states of awe and ecstasy they've experienced whilst alone with nature too. This is what William Wordsworth's poetry is most famous for: his sense that nature is pervaded with what he called ‘a motion and a spirit which rolls through all thinking things, and all objects of thought.'
But the main reason why nature can heal and transform us, I believe, is because of its calming and mind-quietening effect.
In nature, our minds process a lot less information than normal, and they don't wear themselves out by concentrating. And most importantly, the beauty and majesty of nature acts a little like a mantra in meditation, slowing down the normal ‘thought-chatter’ which runs chaotically through our minds.
As a result, an inner stillness and energy fills us, generating a glow of being and intensifying our perceptions.
Main sources of reference:
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995; Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2005; Psychological Science, 2012
Biomedical and Environmental Sciences, 2012; Journal of Cardiology, 2012