I've been thinking a lot lately about biophilia, the scientific word that expresses our profound connection to, and need for, the natural world. Architects and interior designers, for instance, know well that people need natural light and plants and textures that simulate the natural world. I once interviewed an architect who builds urban office buildings for high-tech companies. When I asked him the kind of spaces that make tech workers happiest, he said "savannas, the grassy landscapes where humans first developed back in Africa." He went on to explain that we like to see the people around us, that wanting to be in open spaces is hardwired into our primal psyches and connects with how we most want to live.
Biophilia is about light, which has a massive impact on our mood, our happiness, and our health. Whenever possible, I try to work in natural light (as I'm doing now). When I'm in my co-working space on the 19th floor of a downtown office tower, I work next to a huge window overlooking the Charles River. I don't want to look at walls, which inhibit creativity -- I want to see rivers that flow out into oceans. I want to see sailboats tacking against the breeze.
On a physiological level, natural light is better for our eyes. It suits us, and boosts our mood. No office lamp can do what the sun does for human beings, and never will. Study after study has proven that hospital patients who have windows with views of outside greenery recover faster than patients without a window or one with a view of some wretched industrial landscape. The same is true for office workers: they're happier in workspaces where they have access to natural light, plants, open spaces, and some freedom to roam (i.e., savannas). Nature can literally heal us. It can restore us too, and we so often need restoring.
My closest friend, during the most stressful time of her life, walked on the beach each afternoon, and it wasn't just for exercise (also healthy, of course). The water is calming for the soul, has a way of settling us and reminding us of what's most important in this world -- a sense of peace and calm, a consciousness of beauty, the importance of the spirit. We can't put these things on a spreadsheet and assess their value, because they're invaluable. But they helped my closest friend.
I have another friend who walked by the river each day to de-stress after an arduous day of graduate school, where the pressures from teachers and peers were simply soul-shattering. Walking in nature can remind us that we don't need to define ourselves by being the toughest, most competitive alpha dog in the pack. Life can be brutal, especially in highly-competitive environments like grad schools and workplaces, but biophilia can restore us, putting us back in touch with our better selves. It's a choice we can make, this daily return to nature, and I try to make it often.
Just to be clear, I'm not advocating some utopian, impossible life in the woods, akin to what Henry David Thoreau did when he built his small cabin on Walden Pond. Thoreau was a famous curmudgeon who wasn't well-suited to modern life. I love working downtown in a tall office building filled with creative people. I enjoy building community, interacting and learning from the people around me, helping them get through the hard days and the easy days.
Oftentimes, when I've finished writing a story as I sit by the window on the 19th floor, I'll start texting friends in the building to organize a lunch outside. A group of us meet downstairs, grab some takeout, and, if the weather is good, walk down to a nearby park filled with birds and squirrels scurrying up trees. Much like the birds, we sit on benches or spread out on the grass and chat about the work of the day and other mundane things. I've even been known to toss a few breadcrumbs to the birds skipping around me.
Biophilia is about restoration. When we lose sight of our deep connection with nature, we are in trouble on so many levels. I know it works this way for me, how vital my connection with nature is to my mental, physical, and spiritual health. Here on the porch, outside in the morning sun amidst a symphony of birds and a canopy of trees, I do my most creative work. And this isn't just about work but about community, connecting with where I and all of us come from and will return again in time.