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Feel better after being outside? There’s a scientific reason for that.

Throwing shade at mental health. But, you know, the nice kind of shade.

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As long as humans have been reading and writing, thinkers and researchers have been studying trees and their immense impact on our world.

We know they're powerful carbon sinks, sucking up carbon emissions and helping purify our air and limiting runaway climate change. We know their extensive root systems act like giant sponges, helping to sop up rainwater during storms and prevent erosion. At all stages of their life cycle, they provide habitats for other living things — from moss to lichen to insects to birds to delightful Disney-esque woodland creatures.

Nature is adorable! GIF from "Bambi."


With all of the things trees do for the world, it's easy to wonder: What other ways do trees influence our lives? When people say they feel better after a long walk in the woods, is there a psychological, or even physiological, reason for that? According to scientists: yes. There really is.

The physical health benefits of trees are hard to deny.

A 2014 study in Environmental Pollution tried to quantify the health benefits of trees in America. Looking at data from 2010, they determined that each mature tree removes 17 metric tons of air pollution, and collectively, trees prevented 670,000 cases of respiratory problems like asthma and 850 human deaths. A 2015 study of residents in a Toronto neighborhood found that people who reported better health lived on streets with more than 10 trees. Researchers were able to equate those improved health perceptions with an income increase of $10,000 or a relative age of seven years younger.

Image via iStock.

Being around trees isn't necessarily the only way to reap their benefits  — sometimes just having the ability to look at them can help.

A famous study of surgical patients recovering in a Pennsylvania hospital in the 1970s found that persons whose rooms overlooked trees recovered faster than those who didn't have that view. Japanese healers advocate for the health benefits of shinrin-yoku, ("forest bathing"), where people take long walks in the woods while inhaling complementary aromatherapy scents. A peer-reviewed study of shinrin-yoku found that it helped people lower levels of stress hormones and decrease their blood pressure, with benefits lasting up to one month.

Image via iStock.

Whatever it is that's going on in our brains at the time, it really seems that just being in the presence of trees can leave us happier and more content.

Maybe they remind us that life grows and goes on and flourishes in the toughest places. Maybe there’s something about leaves, about vibrant colors, about the smell of strong wood, or the way sunshine looks dappled through summer leaves. Psychologists believe there's truth to that idea. They call spending time in nature attention restoration theory, or ART. The theory behind it is that natural environments demand so much less of our attention than cities do and that being in nature allows our brains time to rest.

Image via iStock.

Whatever it is about trees that improves our mental health, it’s powerful and potentially transformative. Even city planners are taking notice.

In the past decade, major cities, including Barcelona, New York, and Vancouver, have made increasing green spaces and their urban canopy a big priority. For Vancouver, this includes planting lots of new trees, legislating protections for older trees, protecting parklands, and encouraging residents to spend time outside.

Chances are, though, that you're not reading this while you're outside. Maybe you can't even get outside right now. In that case, maybe a few minutes spent looking at photographs of particularly lovely trees can give us some of the same calm, fuzzy feelings? Let's try!

Worried about your taxes? This beautiful tree has been around for 250 years — longer than every American dollar in circulation.

This gnarly pinyon pine is estimated to be between 80 and250 years old. Image via Grand Canyon National Park/Flickr.

Feeling alone? Let this beautiful moss-covered oak remind you that living things can thrive together — and then call a friend to tell them you care.

Image via iStock.

Ex got you stressed? This tree has withstood winter storms for decades. Its boughs have adapted to weather them, just as you can and you will.

Image via Anatakti/Flickr.

Hal Borland famously said, "If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees."

He's right, of course. Though we'd also add in "peace of mind" too.

Moricz was banned from speaking up about LGBTQ topics. He found a brilliant workaround.

Senior class president Zander Moricz was given a fair warning: If he used his graduation speech to criticize the “Don’t Say Gay” law, then his microphone would be shut off immediately.

Moricz had been receiving a lot of attention for his LGBTQ activism prior to the ceremony. Moricz, an openly gay student at Pine View School for the Gifted in Florida, also organized student walkouts in protest and is the youngest public plaintiff in the state suing over the law formally known as the Parental Rights in Education law, which prohibits the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in grades K-3.

Though well beyond third grade, Moricz nevertheless was also banned from speaking up about the law, gender or sexuality. The 18-year-old tweeted, “I am the first openly-gay Class President in my school’s history–this censorship seems to show that they want me to be the last.”

However, during his speech, Moricz still delivered a powerful message about identity. Even if he did have to use a clever metaphor to do it.

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Education

Here are 4 ways you can effect meaningful change as we process yet another mass shooting

It's easy to feel helpless, but here's how to turn that helplessness into action.

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

Angry and frustrated? Get outside and make your feelings known.

Two mass shootings in less than two weeks. It sounds like some faraway land where citizens fight for their right to freedom. But it’s not some far off land, it’s here in our own backyard. America has a problem—it’s the only developed country in the world that has more mass shootings a year than there are days. We are 144 days into the year and there has already been more than 200 mass shootings, 27 of which were school shootings. Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, is the latest to join that growing list with 19 children and two teachers dying in an elementary school designated for second, third and fourth graders.

Parents and other adults who have lost children at the school are reeling from this unspeakable act of violence. And adults raising children in this country are joining those parents in their grief, but know that collective grief is not enough. People are feeling helpless and want to take action to combat those feelings. It gives our hands and minds something to focus on as our hearts heal.

Here are five things you can do if you’re feeling helpless about gun violence in America.

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Joy

50-years ago they trade a grilled cheese for a painting. Now it's worth a small fortune.

Irene and Tony Demas regularly traded food at their restaurant in exchange for crafts. It paid off big time.

Photo by Gio Bartlett on Unsplash

Painting traded for grilled cheese worth thousands.

The grilled cheese at Irene and Tony Demas’ restaurant was truly something special. The combination of freshly baked artisan bread and 5-year-old cheddar was enough to make anyone’s mouth water, but no one was nearly as devoted to the item as the restaurant’s regular, John Kinnear.

Kinnear loved the London, Ontario restaurant's grilled cheese so much that he ordered it every single day, though he wouldn’t always pay for it in cash. The Demases were well known for bartering their food in exchange for odds and ends from local craftspeople and merchants.

“Everyone supported everyone back then,” Irene told the Guardian, saying that the couple would often trade free soup and a sandwich for fresh flowers. Two different kinds of nourishment, you might say.

And so, in the 1970s the Demases made a deal with Kinnear that he could pay them for his grilled cheese sandwiches with artwork. Being a painter himself and part of an art community, Kinnear would never run out of that currency.

Little did Kinnear—or anyone—know, eventually he would give the Demases a painting worth an entire lifetime's supply of grilled cheeses. And then some.

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