An opinion piece by Professor Mark Orams
New Zealanders increasingly live, work and play in human-built environments. Over 80% of our population lives in urban areas. For most of us, our food comes via supermarkets instead of growing our own, and we spend increasing amounts of time indoors – at home and at work. Conversely, we are seeing growing rates of mental health issues in our people. More and more of us seem to be struggling to live healthy and fulfilling lives, content with who we are and how we are living.
Mental health is a complex issue and cause and effect links are difficult to determine. However, I am convinced there is a relationship between the trend towards more constructed urban living, and diminishing mental health and wellbeing. When we talk to people who frequently engage in active outdoor recreation that is based in natural settings, we find that such experiences are beneficial and therapeutic. Fishers, surfers, sailors, hikers, hunters, mountain bikers, skiers, walkers and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts all participate in these activities because they bring them enjoyment, fulfilment and satisfaction. They are positive experiences.
I have a hypothesis about this effect. Our species has been on our planet for around 200,000 years, and for 199,800 of these years we humans have had to live in close proximity to nature. We have been a part of nature through necessity. For food, shelter and survival we have engaged with nature every day and night of our lives. As a consequence, for most of our evolutionary history, our physiology, our psychological make-up and our underlying functioning has been oriented towards being successful survivors in natural settings.
Over the past 200 years – only three to four human generations – we have seen a massive and fundamental shift in the way we live. In the developed world the great majority of us now live apart from nature, we are disconnected from it and this is not what we evolved to do. As a result, at a subconscious level, perhaps even at a cellular level, something is missing when we are separated from nature. This is why engaging with nature via recreation is so rejuvenating. Actually, what is implied in the root of the word recreation is the notion of ‘re-creating’ oneself. So my explanation to others for why I am so compelled to go surfing makes sense – it’s good for my soul.
Irrespective of whether you agree with my hypothesis or not, my message to you is clear: get out there and into it! Engage in our great outdoors, respect nature, find joy in it and you will reap the benefits in many ways.
Professor Mark Orams is Head of the School Sport and Recreation at Auckland University of Technology, and a sailor, surfer and outdoor recreation enthusiast. New Zealand Mental Health Awareness Week is 10-16 October; the theme for 2016 is “Connect with Nature”.