© Randy Bjorklund
Picture yourself by a lake on a sunny morning. A few ducks paddle by, dried oak leaves rustle in the breeze and chickadees zip from branch to branch. If you imagine feeling calm, happy or relaxed in this type of setting, it’s no surprise. Research shows that time spent in nature positively affects our mental and physical health in many ways. It lowers stress, boosts the immune system and improves focus and creativity. But what’s behind it all? Why do our minds and bodies respond in such significant ways to the natural world? In a word, it’s biophilia.
“Biophilia” comes from the Greek bio for “life” and philia for “love” and means “a love of life or living things.” The concept was introduced by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973 and popularized by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson in Biophilia in 1984. Wilson’s hypothesis suggests humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with other forms of life and that the positive feelings we have toward living things in their natural surroundings are deeply rooted in our biology.
Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers who constantly needed to respond to surrounding ecological cues to survive. The natural world provided food and shelter, but it also gave us experiences crucial to the development of our problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, sense of safety and security, and creativity. Although we no longer rely on the natural world as directly as our ancestors, we still have the inherent urge to seek out and focus on other forms of life.
According to the biophilia hypothesis, our emotional and behavioral responses to nature spring from these subliminal prompts. If you feel captivated by the sight of grazing deer, calmed on a walk among trees, intrigued by bird song, or rewarded by caring for pets or plants, it may be more than personal preference. It could be a hard-wired response based on benefits our forebears gained from associating with living things eons ago.
Yale social ecologist and biophilia pioneer Stephen Kellert saw this association as critical to the well-being of modern humans. He believed cutting ourselves off from the ecological prompts that informed our ancestors’ development caused frustration and discontent. He also thought it might seriously hinder our ability to fully develop our physical and intellectual capacities.
“If we stray too far from our inherited dependence on the natural world, we do so at our own peril,” Kellert wrote in Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. “We will never be truly healthy, satisfied, or fulfilled if we live apart and alienated from the environment from which we evolved.”
But how do we connect with nature when over 75% of Americans live in urban areas? The answer lies in taking little opportunities every day. Fortunately, DuPage forest preserves have 26,000 acres of nearby natural areas to enjoy and explore, and you can find ways to beneficially experience these areas, whether you have a few minutes or a couple of hours, below.