Coined by environmental journalist and author, Richard Louv, nature deficit disorder is the idea that the lack of time spent outside in nature has damaging effects on human beings, both individually and as a species. It’s not an official medical diagnosis but it’s a helpful way to think about how many of the most chronic health conditions and urgent crises we face today can all be linked to the trend of detaching ourselves from the natural world.
While it sounds a little hokey or idealistic, there is real research behind the idea and real benefit to taking steps to “treat” your own case of nature deficit disorder. Here’s a deeper dive into the research behind it and some tips you can use to reconnect with the natural world around you.
What Is Nature Deficit Disorder?
In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv described the consequences of the trend toward staying indoors and staying sedentary. He called the interconnected set of social, mental, and physical health problems “nature deficit disorder.”
Since about the 1980s, kids have been spending less and less time playing outdoors. This was driven in part by parental fears of kidnapping, in part by urban designs that privileged cars over foot traffic (leading to fewer safe spaces for kids to play), and in part by advancing technology that made video games, television, and the internet all increasingly attractive ways to entertain yourself.
For parents, it’s easier to keep an eye on a kid planted in front of a TV set or hunched over a mobile device. For kids — especially kids growing up in an age when streets are built for cars instead of people, parks are far and few between, and friends live across town or across the country instead of around the corner — internet, TV, and other media offer better ways to connect with peers and kill boredom.
The result? We grow up without a strong attachment to nature and without that innate knowledge of the natural world around us. While this might sound like some hippy “we’re not one with nature anymore, man” nonsense, it has measurable consequences on individual health and happiness as well as our social bonds and even on the planet itself.
The symptoms that come with our modern, indoor lifestyles include:
The idea that modern attention spans are shorter than they used to be is misleading. In reality, the increased demands on our attention, specifically directed attention, is the problem.
Directed attention — focusing on a single task while actively tuning out the rest of your environment — takes effort. Doing it eight hours a day, 40 hours a week is exhausting. It’s why all you want to do when you get home is watch a mindless TV show and veg out. It’s also why you feel like you have no energy for your hobbies. Your brain literally needs rest.
Even when you’re not working, modern built environments drain your directed attention energy. With urban designs where every storefront, billboard, street light, car horn, and other stimulus are competing for your attention, your brain has tons of competing demands for your focused, directed attention.
Conversely, in natural environments, researchers found that visual stimuli triggered a more bottom-up attention to process your surroundings. Instead of constantly leaping from one focus to another, you’re more likely to just generally observe the scene as a whole. A forest doesn’t command you to individually focus on each of the thousands of trees. This gives your brain time to rest and puts less strain on it when it is trying to focus. When those same researchers tested the attention spans of participants, they found that those surrounded by natural imagery completed tests about 12% faster on average than participants taking the same test while surrounded by abstract, scrambled imagery.
Since we spend so much of our days trying to tune out “distractions” so we can focus, we lose touch with what our senses are actually picking up. This kind of sensory “numbness” not only disconnects us from nature but from ourselves. Problems like chronic lower back pain or feeling queasy and bloated after eating or waking up groggy are just accepted as a “normal” state rather than as alarm bells worth acknowledging and addressing.
Anxiety, Depression, and ADHD
Without enough of that aimless outdoor exploring and physical activity in general, we end up with a lot of excess physical energy paired with a depletion of mental energy. That conflicting combo can generate a lot of difficult symptoms like a general feeling of anxiety or unease, fidgeting or difficulty sitting still, impulsive behavior, irritability, explosive temper, easily becoming overwhelmed, feeling alienated or isolated, chronic fatigue, and so on.
Since the 1980s, when the trend of keeping kids indoors more really started to pick up momentum, rates of depression, anxiety, and learning disabilities like ADHD have skyrocketed.
In a recent study from Denmark, children who grew up in places with little to no green space were 55% more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder later in life than those who grew up near a park or natural setting. This finding held true, even after controlling for socioeconomic factors and family history of mental illness.
Heart disease, Obesity, and Other Chronic Health Problems
People without access to greenspace tend to have higher blood pressure, faster heart rates, and a decreased ability to heal wounds or repair blood vessels. Over time, these effects compound, causing many of the most prevalent chronic health problems we face today.
In one study, researchers found that women living in a county where trees were disappearing rapidly as a result of emerald ash borers (an invasive pest) had a 41% higher risk of heart disease compared to women living in a more forested area, even after controlling for other risk factors. The loss of green space has immediate and serious impacts on our health.
In a meta-analysis of studies on the subject, researchers found that children who grew up with little to no access to green spaces had higher rates of obesity, hypertension, diabetes, respiratory problems, stroke, and even some cancers.
How Nature Deficit Disorder Affects the Planet
In Last child in the Woods, Louv writes, “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.” While we can’t pin the climate crisis on the fact that kids don’t play outside anymore, nature deficit disorder does impact how we understand this crisis and how we approach solving it.
If we don’t have that connection to the natural world, the climate crisis will feel like a separate issue — something happening “out there.” You might know on a rational level that the planet is doomed, but how accurately can visualize what your life will look like after the apocalypse?
It makes trying to stop the climate crisis feel pointless, too. You’ll see humans as a parasite on the planet and get the impression that there’s just no way for us, as a species, to meet our needs for food, energy, and shelter without hurting the planet. There’s no way to enjoy the conveniences of modern cities without destroying acres and acres of wilderness to build them.
This has led to an overemphasis on climate solutions that center avoidance and abstinence. We designate “natural preserves” and “protected areas” where that preservation and protection happen by keeping humans out. Meanwhile, we continue building cities in unsustainable, harmful ways that destroy the ecosystems where they’re located.
In the best case, these kinds of policies reinforce the idea that nature is something “out there,” and, as a result, ignores the real work we need to do of changing how we build and use resources. In the worst case, these environmental policies end up displacing the indigenous communities who have lived sustainably in those “protected” environments for centuries.
In reality, humans can have a positive impact on the natural world around us. Cities can be built in biophilic ways that promote and maintain the ecosystems where they are. Farms can be managed using agroforestry and other techniques that allow us to grow the food we need without depleting the soil or destroying forests and other ecosystems to make room for farmland.
But if we’ve never spent time gardening, playing with bugs, or carefully befriending the local lizards or deer that pass through our yards, we won’t be able to conceive of a world where we coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship with our environment. We’ll only understand nature as a resource that we have to try to use less of.
How Much of a Difference Can Going Outside Really Make?
Our modern indoor, sedentary lives cause tons of health problems in ourselves, in society as a whole, and in the planet. But the idea that getting off your couch and just sitting outside is going to make a serious difference in all that sounds a little hokey at best. What difference does it make to the world whether or not I go outside and look at a butterfly?
As ridiculous as it sounds, bear with me, because there is actually a ton of research that shows being in nature makes a real difference. Here’s a quick overview of what science has to say about the power of going outside:
A comparative study of patients with coronary artery disease split the subjects into two groups. One group walked 30 minutes per day in a city environment. The other group walked 30 minutes per day in a park environment.
While both groups showed improvements after seven days, researchers found that the group walking in a park environment saw an even more significant improvement in their resting heart rates, systolic blood pressure, and diastolic blood pressure.
A large study of over 1,500 residents in Brisbane City, Australia found that spending just 30 minutes outside per week reduced rates of depression by 7% and lowered blood pressure by 9%. More encouraging, researchers found that, while 30 minutes a week was enough to make a difference, more time spent outdoors correlated with even more reductions in blood pressure and depression symptoms.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that hospitalized patients recover more quickly and more fully if they can simply see a natural landscape from their hospital room. Just three to five minutes spent looking at a garden or landscape dominated by trees and waters was enough to reduce pain and anxiety and speed up healing in hospitalized patients. Even a painting of a natural landscape was enough for a group of heart surgery patients to recover from surgery with fewer doses of pain medication than patients without the natural landscape painting.
In a study on the effects of time spent outdoors on cognitive skills, subjects who spent four days immersed in nature saw a 50% improvement on creative problem-solving tasks compared to those who didn’t.
A similar study found that children who went to schools with playgrounds surrounded by or in nature — such as forest schools or schools with trees and other natural features in the playground — performed better in academics, had longer attention spans, and had improved motor skills and coordination than children who went to schools in built environments.
Even just having a view of nature from your window makes a difference. In a study of children living in a city, girls who were in rooms with a window looking out on a natural landscape performed 20% better on tasks requiring self-discipline like impulse inhibition, concentration, and delaying gratification, than those whose windows looked out on a built environment.
Green space also improves social cohesion. In a comparison of crime rates across different neighborhoods, researchers found that neighborhoods with more vegetation and greenery had fewer reports of both property crime and violent crime.
Likewise, neighborhoods with more trees and more natural outdoor spaces (a park as opposed to a cemented public square, for example) saw more frequent social interactions and larger, more diverse groups of people socializing than neighborhoods without that green space.
To clarify, taking up gardening or regular walks in the park isn’t a cure-all to stop crime or a replacement for your doctor’s prescribed treatment plan. But it is a powerful and important way to improve your overall mental and physical health which could potentially lessen the painful or disruptive symptoms you’re dealing with. Plus, going outside will not interfere with any existing drugs or treatments you’re on and can be done, regardless of fitness or ability levels.
How to Reconnect with Nature
While we’ve lost the habit, spending more time in nature isn’t rocket science. In many of the studies cited above, the benefits researchers recorded were achieved simply by being outdoors.
Even when physical activity was involved, it was rarely strenuous. A leisurely stroll or a relaxed afternoon of gardening is enough to get you outside, moving, and enjoying the many mental, physical, and social benefits of natural environments.
Even those living in urban areas with limited access to green space can benefit from simple changes like planting a window garden or sitting on a bench in that tiny park with two trees and swing set up the block.
The best part is going outside is free, does not require special equipment (unless you’re taking up rock climbing or fishing or something), and can easily be combined with activities you already enjoy. If your current weekend routine is drinking with your buddies at a bar, try drinking with your buddies at a park instead.
You don’t have to be some survivalist or live in some pristine natural paradise. Just try out these tips for building more outdoor time into your routine:
- Set a manageable goal. Start with something you know you can do. It should be so ridiculously easy to achieve that you can’t make excuses to skip it. For example: start with something like “stand outside for five minutes.” That way, even if you find yourself getting ready for bed and just then remembering that you didn’t do it yet, you can go stand out in the backyard in your pajamas for five minutes.
- Schedule it. Make a plan for that manageable goal you set and then schedule it for a time that works for you. It’s harder to put it off or forget to do it if you block out time for it in your calendar. After a couple weeks of sticking to this schedule, it’ll start to feel like a regular part of your routine.
- Stack it on an existing habit. This is a classic habit-building strategy. Basically, if you want to start a new habit, link it to a habit you already have. Drink coffee every morning? Do it in the backyard. Talk to your best friend on the phone after work? Do it while walking in a park.
In addition to being outside more often, it also helps to engage with that environment. Get to know the landscape you live in and the other species you share it with. This will not only improve your mental health but also build social skills and improve your awareness and understanding of how humans can live in their environments without destroying them.
Some tips for engaging with your natural environment:
- Learn the names of the plants, animals, and insects that you see when you go outside. If you can’t figure out the actual species, make up a name yourself (hey, those scientific names are made up anyway).
- Learn about the local climate and ecosystem you live in. How much rain does it get? What kind of soil does it have? What does it look like when it’s thriving and healthy? What does it need to thrive?
- Reintroduce biodiversity by planting native plants in your yard, including plants that the local wildlife depends on for food or shelter.
- Take up an outdoor hobby like gardening, hiking, or camping.
- Bring a trash bag with you on outdoor walks to pick up any litter you see.
- Befriend the animals you see on your regular walks
It doesn’t have to be big, major lifestyle changes. Just start spending more time in whatever green space you have — and if you don’t have much green space around you, start adding it in, one cute little houseplant at a time.