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Why You Should Work Outside

We’ve discussed the “nature-deficit disorder [7]” running rampant throughout contemporary society before. Kids are more likely to control characters in video games who explore vast outdoor worlds (and complain about the graphics “not being realistic enough”) rather than get out and explore the real world themselves (which has excellent graphics, a pretty snazzy physics engine, and killer AI). Adults are likely to go entire days without stopping to smell a flower, pluck a leaf, caress a blade of grass, or even see a shred of foliage. We’ve also written about some of the incredible health benefits that occur once people correct that deficit and go forest bathing [8], or hiking [9], or commiserating with animals [10], or even planting a small garden on their property [11]. In other words, a lack of nature seems to cause physical and mental health problems, while an exposure to nature seems to improve physical and mental health.

What’s going on here?

If you look at things through the lens of evolution, you notice that we’re doing things differently than we’ve ever done before. People live in suburbs or urban centers. Rural communities are shrinking, urban sprawl is widening. Green space is disappearing. And we’re suffering. A lack of nature is incredibly unhealthy. Being in and around leaves and trees and sand and bugs and dirt and desert and all the rest is the natural state of the animal known as man. It’s home. It’s in our blood and in our genes. We might have adapted to spending lots of time indoors, but not completely. The evidence is all around us, if you just pay attention:

The young child who runs around the park like a chicken with his head removed just to do it.

The sullen teen, whose parents drag him kicking and screaming to the redwoods for a hike, who has to leave behind his iPhone, who enjoys himself despite his best efforts to the contrary.

That feeling when you walk through the grass with bare feet as the sun dips below the horizon and you’re hit with a flood of purples and pinks, where if you didn’t know better you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was dawn or dusk.

And finally, the office worker who goes on vacation to Costa Rica, does nothing but sit on the beach at the edge of a jungle teeming with howler monkeys and impossibly brightly-colored birds for two weeks, and comes back healthier, happier, stress-free, and down ten pounds.

Yeah, for a great many people, work stinks. Actually, let’s put that a little differently: For a great many people, indoor work stinks. What if it didn’t have to be like that? What if you could work outside, commune with nature as you typed, feel the grass underfoot as you brainstorm, and hear not the drone of the overhead lighting but rather the chirp of the bird, the caw of the crow, and the overpowering stillness of the outdoors? There’s very little direct research dealing with the effect of working outside versus indoors, but I think we can make some predictions based on the considerable evidence for the benefits of being outside in general.

Unfortunately, the benefits of working outdoors aren’t always obvious. What does your boss care [12] if you feel more relaxed when you take your work outside? If it doesn’t translate to improved earnings, the higher-ups generally aren’t going to take it into account. They might care on a personal level, but there is no way to accurately or reliably quantify the benefits to the business. Or if you’re the boss, either of employees or yourself, why should you want to switch everything up and start working outside? What’s in it for you, besides feeling better and some random health benefits? How will it affect a person’s ability to work?

Stress Alleviation

The clear-cut, most obvious problem with work is job-related stress. We’re pushed too hard for too little pay. This can be stressful. We’re doing something we’d rather not, rather than doing something we actually enjoy. This is stressful as well. We’re competing with our workmates for promotions, pay raises, or even just to keep our jobs. Such competition, especially prolonged competition, can be stressful. We’re looking over our shoulders, worrying about layoffs and mergers and fluctuations in other markets that affect our employment. This can be stressful, especially because so much is ultimately out of our immediate control. It’s no wonder, then, that people assume that the stress comes entirely from the actual work. Doing anything for eight hours at a time, especially when you don’t particularly care for it and particularly when you sit down the entire time [13] with nary a break, can be draining and stressful. You toss in a long commute and a boss you hate, and things get even worse.

But I think there’s much more to job-related stress than the job. I think the physical work environment – the office, the cubicle, the indoor lighting, the walls boxing you in, the uniform sameness of it all – also plays a role, perhaps even the primary role. After all, evidence is mounting that nearly all lab animals are perpetually stressed [14], primarily because their natural habitats are vastly different than the lab habitat. If we’re in a similar position, spending a third of our days in physical environments that are wholly alien to our genes, subject to lighting that’s not as bright as the sun, windows that only some of the UV rays through [15], walls that keep us penned in, chairs that keep us immobile [13], and a distinct lack of greenery, dirt [16], sand, silt, mud, muck, bugs, and trees, increased stress [17] is a likely result.

As to why we should want to improve our experience at work and reduce stress, job-related stress isn’t just unpleasant and, well, stressful. It can also complicate, complement, and exacerbate metabolic syndrome [18], raising triglycerides, blood pressure, and the risk of renal and heart disease. Pretty hard to get those TPS reports done with a failing kidney. Oh, and happier and less stressed workers are also better workers [19]. Overall, occupational stress is a huge target. If we can reduce that by working outside, we’ll probably have mitigated a big portion of the stress [20] in our lives.

Attention Restoration

For all intents and purposes, humans have two “types” of attention: voluntary, or active attention; and involuntary, or passive attention. When we’re working (or reading, or writing, or watching a TV show, or trying to remember a phone number), we are using voluntary attention. We have chosen to direct our attention toward this task, this task demands our full and sustained attention, and we are actively attending to it. An artist, a craftsman, a teacher, a golfer, an insurance broker, a copywriter – they all use voluntary attention to do their thing. Everyone who does anything does. Of course, voluntary attention takes a lot out of us. It’s tiring. It must be sustained, but it’s not indefinitely sustainable [21]. We need a break from it.

Involuntary attention refers to “soft fascination.” It’s watching two birds in flight, an ant carrying food back to the nest, a leaf fluttering down from the tree, carried by the wind. It’s hearing a child’s cry, a trickling creek, a distant waterfall. It’s a respite from voluntary attention, because it doesn’t really require active engagement. It’s just there, and we’re observing it, almost like we’re “meant” to see this type of stuff on a regular basis without it occupying too much brain power.

If voluntary attention is like an intense workout, involuntary attention is the low-intensity active recovery, the walking, the mobility [22] work, the cool down. We need both to be whole and healthy and attentive. If we spend all our time engaged in voluntary, active attention – like 10 hour days at work, 2 hour commutes, and 2 hours of late night TV – our performance declines, we get mental fatigue, and we’re less able to respond to novel situations and plan ahead. In short, we get overtrained [23].

Research shows [24] that nature exposure is a way to foster involuntary attention, since walking in the woods doesn’t require us to “be on.” And if we move our work outside, to even just a small sliver of nature like a garden or a park, research shows that we can restore [25] our attentional capacity, our balance between voluntary and involuntary attention. Our voluntary attention is the precious, finite resource that allows us to excel at work-related pursuits, and going into nature can replenish our stores of voluntary attention and, subsequently, our ability to work smarter and better. Why, it’s like using your laptop while it’s plugged in – you can operate at full screen brightness, have three browsers with tons of tabs open, watch videos, render graphics, edit photos, and play music, all at the same time. Okay, so that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but it will almost certainly help your performance.

There’s this idea that dallying in nature is wasteful, or that it’s time that could be better spent being productive, making money (especially for someone else!). I’m not buying it. For hundreds of thousands of years, people have been making tools, setting traps, building homes, butchering beasts, discovering math, science, physics, and astronomy, all while living in or near nature. Until recently, the wild was all around most of us. Even if you lived in the city or a village, nature was waiting outside the walls. Still we worked, and worked well. Why not now? Why not today?

As John Muir once said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Going outside is “going home.” Now just imagine if you could work from home, too.

That’s the “why.” Next week, I’ll discuss the “how.” In the meantime, go outside, will ya?

Thanks for reading, folks. Thoughts, comments, and concerns are welcome, as always.