April 12, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Thank God for Nature

For your health and happiness, get outdoors and be grateful. Science is confirming Psalm 148.

Many times we have reported findings that show exposure to natural settings improves health. The latest comes from Science Daily, that says the American Institute of Biological Sciences plans to perform clinical trials on “nature exposure” just like they do for medicines.

In the June issue of BioScience, a group of biologists and public health experts led by Danielle F. Shanahan address this knowledge gap by examining nature through the lens of medical thinking. Their aim is to establish a basis for studying exposure to the outdoors in much the same way that a researcher would study a medicine, through dose-response modeling. With this approach, a precise “nature dose” would be evaluated for its ability to produce a health response. The authors hope that such inquiry will help research move beyond coarse measures of nature dose “to understand how urban nature can be manipulated to enhance human health.”

The kind of nature exposure needs to be considered in the evaluation. Walking through a howling jungle or a snake-infested desert might produce more stress than benefit, for example (think of those survivor shows). And is just looking out the window at trees, or watching nature pictures on a screen, as beneficial as a walk in a woods? Can you have too much of a good thing as well as too little? At least medical science has seen enough of the “coarse measures” to take them seriously. Some day your doctor may, as standard practice, prescribe dosages of hiking instead of pills.

Another subject that has come up often is the healthfulness of gratitude. It appears again in Science Daily, with the American Psychological Association affirming that “a grateful heart is a healthy heart.”

Gratitude is part of a wider outlook on life that involves noticing and appreciating the positive aspects of life. It can be attributed to an external source (e.g., a pet), another person or a non-human (e.g., God). It is also commonly an aspect of spirituality, said Mills. Because previous research has shown that people who considered themselves more spiritual had greater overall well-being, including physical health, Mills and his colleagues examined the role of both spirituality and gratitude on potential health markers in patients.

In the study, participants kept a journal of things they were grateful for. The survey team also measured their heart rate variability, a measure of heart health. Predictably, gratitude correlated well with cardiac health. “What surprised the researchers about the findings, though, was that gratitude fully or partially accounted for the beneficial effects of spiritual well-being.” They say that the gratitude aspect of spirituality is the factor that produces better mood and sleep. This implies that a grumpy churchgoer is not necessarily healthy.

Putting the two reports together, it appears that the ideal combination would be to express thanksgiving to God during a walk outdoors in a beautiful natural setting.

You’ll notice that these studies are non-materialistic. They assume the ontological reality of spirit: else how can a pile of atoms express spirituality? Gratefulness, as well, involves a mental state that is non-material. To say that these things “supervene” on the neurons is just playing with words. What does that mean? What is the connection between the experience of gratitude and spirituality with the material, if that’s all there is? And what truth, logic or understanding is supervening on the scientists’ or philosophers’ neurons when they dreamt up the concept of supervenience? Did they think about that through logic and mental choice, or was it a phantom determined by their neurons? But we digress.

If you haven’t discovered the benefits of outdoor gratitude, try it. Your Editor, a cancer survivor, takes vigorous outdoor walks, with hills, for 2-4 miles, every day, and tries to be consistently grateful. It has helped him stay fitter and happier than he has been for a long time. He recommends it highly. Do your own clinical trial and you’ll see.

Psalm 148

Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
praise him, all his heavenly hosts.
Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies.

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
old men and children.

13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.

Praise the Lord!

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