Nature and social cohesion
Going outside can help us feel together--even when we’re two meters apart
Today I was walking in the small farming village where I live. It was a lunch-hour break from the news that has been gripping us all about the deadly, fast-spreading virus that has exposed our ways of life as fragile, and now uncertain. Along the narrow footpaths and open fields, I shed the headlines about growing death tolls, overflowing hospitals, closed schools, stripped supermarkets.
In any other year it would have simply been the first day of spring. Birds were plucking twigs from the ground for their nests and were calling for mates, fending off rivals. The daffodils and snowdrops courted bumblebees that seemed too weighty for their wings. A few farmers were out on tractors turning over the soil. The air smelled new, like hope. Research by our SOAR team principal investigator, Netta Weinstein, and others has shown that being outdoors boosts our vitality, that is, our mental and physical energy. Along the treelined paths of my village, things felt normal.
There were other walkers about too, with dogs and babies, and older people out for their daily constitutionals. When I saw them I remembered reality had shifted. In this odd but necessary moment of ‘social distancing’ I gave a wide berth to everyone I encountered but, even from two meters away we exchanged a wave, a smile, a hello.
There is reassurance in the predictability of the coming spring. There is calm in the consistency of neighbors out walking. And there’s more than that—there’s cohesion. Weinstein’s research also has shown that exploring and experiencing nature significantly increases the degree to which people feel socially connected. When we spend time in the outdoors we feel more linked to our environment and more favorable to the people in it. We are communing, just as our hunter/gatherer predecessors did once upon a time, for mutual survival.
In many ways we’ll have to endure this pandemic apart but, in the outdoors, we can do it together, to the benefit of us all.
About the author:
Heather Hansen, journalist and SOAR investigator