The Happiest Year: Stay Wild, Child

dsc_0310

I have a confession to make to you all: I’m not an outdoors person.

For all of my preaching about outdoor time and nature loving, I have to say that I have my hang ups when it comes to rolling around on God’s green Earth. I hate being dirty and I am squeamish about bugs and critters. I can’t stand things on the bottom of my feet, I break out in a rash from grass, and I’d honestly rather sleep in a bed than a tent.

If you ask my mom, I’ve always been like this.  She’s said multiple times that I despised getting dirty as a little girl, preferring instead to stay inside and play in my room.  I have a vivid memory of being horrified while watching some little girls rolling around in the dust in front of the bleachers I was seated in at a high school football game.  I never understood “those” outdoorsy types.  

But for all of my cleanliness, God blessed me with the most dirt-loving, nature-obsessed little girl there could be.

My baby girl, my precious little one who, in my humble opinion, could pass as a living porcelain doll, would probably be her happiest self rolling around in mud literally all day every day.  She frolics barefoot on all terrain, gets distracted from sand castle building by dumping sand on herself, and has recently made best friends with the bugs in our yard.  

I hope she never changes.

If you’ve followed me for some time, you know Lu is ferociously herself.  I’ve learned and changed more since having her than in all of the 30 years before her, simply because I know she won’t be changing anytime soon, and that includes starting my own personal love affair with nature from following her lead.  The joy and happiness L gets from just BEING in nature is so obvious, theres no way I could think about changing that about her and…if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I guess!

I’m so glad Lu inspired me to seek out more of the great outdoors, because it has so much to offer, including some incredible benefits to human happiness, physical health, and mental health!  

Personally, I can vouch for the idea that being outdoors improves mood and decreases stress. Before the COVID crisis and while I was still on maternity leave, the kids and I had really gotten into hiking around the trails near our home.  I selfishly began the practice in order to get a challenging workout in, but I found myself in awe at the beauty that naturally surrounds us, and feeling uplifted by it.  

Since shelter in place began in our state, we began a daily practice of taking a long walk in our neighborhood, checking out new and different routes and observing the small natural wonders we find (hear more on delighting in the everyday on this podcast).  Even on the days I feel reluctant and/or sleepy, I notice a difference in my mood before and after we walk.  I also notice a difference in Lu’s mood and she sleeps much easier after working her muscles on the various walls and stepping stones around us.  

Officially, tons of research points to a connection between nature and happiness.  Google “nature and happiness” and you’ll find studies concluding that people report more happiness in natural environments than urban and that being in nature decreases ruminating and increases cognition.  There is a study that doing an activity outdoors makes someone happier than if they had done the same activity indoors (I’ve been looking and looking for this study and can’t find where I saw this, but I did find this one about exercising indoor v. outdoor).

Additionally, spending time in nature may be beneficial for mental illness!  There are many reports that being in nature can improve anxiety and depression symptoms (see here and here for examples).  One Harvard study  found that walking in nature can help calm the prefrontal cortex, which is over overactive in people experiencing anxiety, and that the distraction nature provides can decrease anxious thoughts as well.

Personally, I’ve found anxiety relief in the grounding that comes with the natural mindfulness of the outdoors.  When L was very small, she naturally wondered over things I would have never even noticed before.  Small flowers, spider webs, leaves…you name it, she noticed it.  So then I started noticing, and pointing things out to her that I wanted to share with her.  All of this wondering over the Earth’s beauty, big and small, provides a welcomed focal point for my oft-wandering “monkey mind”, a term used in meditation referring to the way thoughts can race sometimes.  

An mindful activity I love to do with Lu on our walks is a sensory countdown.  We take turns identifying 5 things we can see, 4 things we can feel, 3 we can hear, 2 we can smell, and 1 we can taste.  It further helps ground and center me, and I enjoy seeing the small things she sees that I may have completely missed. 

Finally, being outside can improve your physical health, too.  This Time article  cites lower blood pressure and heart rate as two physical benefits, and the outdoors is shown to boost your immune system.  

So, even though I still appreciate my warm showers and likely won’t be building a yurt in the woods any time soon, I can’t help but be grateful for this world of the great outdoors that I’ve been able to share with my little ones.  We’ve discovered some amazing green spaces in our city, and hiking has become a beloved weekend pastime for our family.  We’ve discovered our love of Joshua Tree National Park and are planning a trip to visit more national parks when it’s safe to travel again.  

dsc_0321

I hope to share many more sunsets and sunrises, springtime flowers, birds nests, canyon views, desert blooms, snowball fights, ocean waves, and maybe even dirt excavations with my loved ones throughout our lives, and I hope Lu retains her love for the outdoors, too.  There are so many benefits, something I’ve been missing until very recently.  What a great big, beautiful world we’ve been gifted!

Have I inspired you to take a (literal) hike yet?  I hope you find your own brand of “outdoorsy”!