The Benefits of Biophilia

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative
By Florence Williams
WW Norton & Company, 2017, 290 Pages

Florence Williams’ new book, The Nature Fix, Why Nature Makes Us Happier Healthier and More Creative, isn’t just required reading for those defending nature, it is also so for those looking to improve productivity, cut down on sick days, and increase innovation. It turns out, all those rocks and trees and dirt do way more for our physical and mental well-being than we ever thought possible.

Armed with an entire ecosystem of neuroscientists, ecologists, economists, and other experts, Florence Williams sets out to answer a simple question: Is nature good for us? The answer is obvious: Of course, it is. But it is the science behind how and why it’s good for us that sends Williams on a multi-country journey that is both fascinating and ambitious in its cover thumbnail

A veteran journalist, Williams flexes her conditioned reporting muscles in The Nature Fix. Her fast-paced book takes readers across three continents as she trails all kinds of experts, from psychologists to foresters. She hikes with them through nature parks in South Korea and volunteers as a “forest bathing” research subject in Japan. She watches researchers attempt to measure “how nature makes us think, solve problems and work together” out in the vast expanses of the American West. She even ventures into the new, expanding world of virtual reality, all to understand the impact of nature on our brains and what “our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors” is doing to us.

Williams is also aware that money speaks. She discusses in depth how spending time in nature could do more than reduce health problems and help Americans save money on doctor’s bills; it could also help us be more economically successful. She points to studies that suggest that those with better access to plants, animals, and quiet time out in the woods or out at sea are more innovative and harder working.

To learn more about how nature could contribute to higher test scores for school children, Williams goes to Finland where being out in nature is an ingrained part of the culture. She explains that in this cold, Scandinavian country, schoolchildren spend significant time outdoors, yet this important fact is left out in most of the glowing reports citing the impressive math and science scores achieved by Finnish students. The impact of nature on kids isn’t the only thing Williams learns in Finland. This section is so chock full of scientific and social insight it is worth a second read through. Really, the entire book is.

The trouble with Williams’ book is how to best market it. The exceptional reporting and clear science writing are, for the most part, pretty non-biased. The self-deprecating humor, memoir-style tone of the book makes it an engaging and easy read. The Nature Fix also steers clear of the self-help category. Williams doesn’t attempt to provide “answers” to all the problems to the modern world. And even though she notes that she sometimes longs to go back to Boulder after moving to Washington DC, the book doesn’t fall into the privilegey, spiritual, Lulu Lemon-type section of the bookstore.

This lack of categorization, conversely, is one of the things that makes The Nature Fix stand out among much of the other nature-benefit books of the past decade. Richard Louv’s 2007 Last Child in the Woods is one book that, while groundbreaking and essential reading for anyone interested in environmental issues, comes short on one key front: a half decent understanding of the lives of low-income people. The Nature Fix, however, dives right in. In one instance, Williams explores how nature impacts people in the slums of Glasgow where the life expectancy drops significantly compared to people living in the Scottish countryside. She also takes care to note how natural spaces in cities are crucial to those without the means to escape the concrete jungles they live in. The book fills the reader with a sense of humanity and awe. If that weren’t enough, Williams even takes the trouble to explain how that awe is good for you.

As environmentalists, conservationists, and their detractors continue to debate the true value of our natural world – and how it should be used, cared for, and protected – The Nature Fix, maybe, just maybe, helps us get a little closer to figuring it out.

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