A complete guide to biophilia and to how nature impacts our wellbeing

A complete guide to biophilia and to how nature impacts our wellbeing

It’s no secret that most people love contact with nature. But recent studies are showing that this natural connection can have very relevant impacts in our health and wellbeing! Learn about those effects and how you can maximize them even in an urban environment

The main topics we will discuss are:

Definition of Biophilia 

Let’s start from the beginning: defining what biophilia actually is. And a good way to do that is to looking at the word itself: Biophilia derives from the greek radicals “bio” (life) and “philia” (friend, love), which gives us “love of life or living systems”.

The word was coined by the german psychologist Erich Fromm, who used it in his 1973 book “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness“. In the book, he presents biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive”,

Almost 10 years later, in 1984, Biophilia became the title of a book published by the american entomologist and Harvard professor Edward Wilson. And E. O. Wilson, as he is often cited in his works, can be credited as one of the main persons responsible for disseminating the idea of biophilia. We will have a look at some of the concepts and practical applications that developed from the work of these two men in a moment. But first, let’s learn more about the biophilia hypothesis.

The biophilia hypothesis

When Fromm first presented the definition of biophilia, he suggested that the tendency people have to seek nature might be an intrinsic human trait. In other words, Fromm thinks that we humans have, in our biology, a tendency or even need to connect with nature and other living forms. This idea of a deeply rooted link between humans and nature is called the “biophilia (or biophilic) hypothesys”. In his book, Fromm also presents this description of a biophilic person:

“Biophilia is the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group. The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example”

Erich Fromm – The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 1973, p. 366

Very inspiring, don’t you think? As we mentioned before, Fromm was not alone in his in his ideas, and in 1995, E. O. Wilson published a book called The Biophilia Hypothesys together with Stephen R Kellert, professor in social ecology at Yale University, in which they discuss the theory in detail. According to Wilson: “our natural affinity for life―biophilia―is the very essence of our humanity and binds us to all other living species”.

Is biophilia a natural human instinct?

As we can see, Fromm and Wilson agree with each other and defend that humans have a natural biophilic tendency. They believe that humans evolved to enjoy nature and other living being. Examples this would be how we enjoy flowers, how we think babies of all animals species (and not only humans) are cute, and how we appreciate natural landscapes. The biophilia hypothesis suggests we evolved these preferences not only because they help our species, but also because they help the survival of all living creatures.

Until now, though, we don’t have any concrete proof that biophilia is something intrinsic to us (instead of something we learn, for example). But no matter if this link to nature is intrinsic or learned, what we do have is growing scientific evidence showing that nature does have a very beneficial influence on our wellbeing. And this, by itself, is already a great reason for us to try to increase our contact with nature!

Nature and Wellbeing

It is no mystery that most people enjoy spending time in or close to nature. Beaches, mountains, fields, farmhouses… everyone has their favorite! But what we are finding out is that this biophilic habit actually brings several health benefits to us. Some of the most obvious ones are:

  • Fresh air
  • Social interactions 
  • Physical activity 

That natural environments offer better air quality than what you get in urban areas should be a no brainer. No mysteries here. In nature there’s no smoke from cars and factories, not to mention less noise and no visual pollution.

Going into nature is often also a social experience, as we usually have friends with us or interact with others we meet on the way. Have you ever noticed how people tend to get more friendly when you meet them in a park compared to a busy street? Nature does seem to make us more relaxed and ready to socialize.

Finally, getting close to nature is also often associated with physical activities such as hiking, jogging, swimming or even climbing. All of them bring us the benefits of exercising and help us fight city life sedentarism

Unexpected benefits

But this is not all. Researchers are discovering that connecting with nature can bring us less obvious, previously unknown benefits. These include:

  • Reduced stress level
  • Improved mood
  • Lower anxiety
  • Faster recovery from fatigue
  • Lower heart-rate and decreased levels of stress hormones
  • Faster recovery from physical and psychological issues

That sounds pretty amazing, right? “But is there any actual evidence for those effects?”, you may ask? And it turns out that yes, there are scientific evidences for it! So let’s have a look at some of the studies that analyzed those effects:

Scientific evidence connecting nature, health and wellbeing

  • According to a study done by the Natural Resources Institute of Finland, spending at least 5 hours per month in urban green areas or going to non urban green areas 2 to 3 times a month has a restorative effect on people. This means that we recover faster from physical and mental fatigue when close to nature. The institute claims that larger, non urban spots, offer stronger restorative effects, but that spending time in even small urban green areas is already highly beneficial.
  • Thanks to a series of studies done in the US, we now also know that hospital gardens can actually promote patient healing and improve their recovery. Even hanging photographs of natural landscapes inside hospital rooms was shown to have a positive effects on patients.
  • A similar finding came up in a study from Uppsala Univesity, Sweden, done by professor Roger Ulrich back in 1993. His research group found that patients in rooms containing posters of natural landscapes showed less anxiety and felt less pain than patients in similar rooms with either blank walls or abstract paintings. The same author showed, in 2017, that hospital gardens alleviate stress and promote restoration to pregnant women and their families.
  • Another Swedish study, done in Stockholm, showed that listening to nature sounds makes recovery from a stressful stimulus up to 37% faster. 

And these are just some examples from a growing number of studies showing similar results!

It is important to remember, though, that spending time in nature is not a substitute for proper medical care. But as we just saw, even if nature won’t directly cure diseases, there’s strong and growing evidence that it can provide several health benefits and possibly accelerate or facilitate healing.

Nature in the workspace

Several researchers have also been looking into how nature can affect people’s work life. And the good news is that studies such as this one, published by scientists from Central Michigan University, in the US, are finding that natural elements can be very beneficial to offices and other workspaces.

Some of the observed positive consequences of having more nature in and around the workspace are:

  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced stress and anxiety
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Reduced number and length of sick leaves,
  • Among others. 

As we can see, these are beneficial for both workers and companies, meaning that everybody wins when we bring work and nature together.

Now that we know that nature can positively affect us, let’s have a look at how some of these findings are transforming our society.

Practical applications of biophila

The growing awareness about the benefits of the contact with nature and the dissemination of the biophilia hypothesys have resulted in a number of practical applications which are now influencing how we shape our urban spaces. Let’s have a look at some of them:

Biophilic design and architecture

There is a strong movement towards making our cities more green, sustainable and, as some would say, more attentive to our biophilic needs. Biophilic design is an emergent form of sustainable design which not only tries to include more green in the landscape, but also aims to increase the connection between people and the environment.

The book Biophilic Design, by Stephen R. Kellert, suggests that “… biophilic design at any scale – from buildings to cities – begins with a few simple questions:

  • How does the built environment affect the natural environment?
  • How will nature affect human experience and aspiration?
  • And how can we achieve sustained and reciprocal benefits between the two?”

The Terrapin Bright Green consultancy has also published works on the subject. Below you find a list of some of the main concepts that, according to them, biophilic design aims to bring to urban spaces. 

Visual connection with nature

Humans are generally attracted to natural images. Animals, flowers, trees, mountains or a seaside scenery, all of them are almost hypnotically beautiful. Looking at natural motives can reduce stress, improve concentration and promote recovery. 

How to integrate it in design: Buildings with more windows that allow a better view of the outside world, gardens, potted plants, flowers (always preferring natural over simulated vegetation), coffee break and exercise stations near green areas, and even photos of natural landscapes added to our walls can promote wellbeing and reduce anxiety.

Non-visual connection with nature

Although natural images have a strong biophilic appeal to most people, it is not only through vision that we connect to nature. Smells, sounds and textures that create a link to being outdoors can also have a positive effect on us. Natural sounds, such as waves and the singing of birds, have been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce fatigue and stress,

How to integrate it in design:Prefer natural materials such as wood over syntetic ones. Adding natural objects can be touched, such as stones and plants can also offer tactile stimuli. Gardens that attract birds or even listening to recorded natural sounds can be a very relaxing and restorative experience

Presence of water

Water is such an important natural element for humans and its presence has an almost magical way of catching our attention. Not only is the sight of water visually appealing, but the sound and feel of it also have powerful tranquilizing and restorative effect on us.

How to integrate it in design:Lakes, ponds and fountains can be valuable additions to buildings, and miniature fountains are available also for the interior of houses and apartments. Whenever possible, look for experiences that affect several of our senses, and give preference to natural (or less predictable) water movement. It is also a good idea to combine it with other natural elements such as rocks, stones and plants, which will increase the benefits associated with biophilia.

Light, temperature and airflow

In natural environments, we are constantly exposed to small variations in light (sunny X cloudy, light X shade), temperature (sun X shade, wind) and airflow (wind, air currents). Research shows that indoor environments without such variations lead to increased boredom and passivity.

How to integrate it in design:Modern indoor environments can be programmed to offer some level of variability. Light dimmers, fans, heaters, coolers are all instruments that can be used. Opening windows and creating spaces with increased contact with the outside are still the easiest and most environmentally friendly way of satisfying our biophilic instincts and getting this beneficial variation, though

Biophilic cities

When we successfully implement the concepts of biophilic design on a larger scale, the result can be a whole city that promotes connection between humans and nature. A biophilic city!

Timothy Beatley, author of the book Biophilic Cities and  professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, has been working on green urbanism for several years and suggests that green, biophilic cities are those that:

  • strive to live within its ecological limits, reducing their ecological footprint
  • are designed to function in ways analogous to nature,
  • strive to achieve a circular rather than a linear metabolism, reusing and recycling its resources
  • strive toward local and regional self-sufficiency, taking advantage of local production, services and activities
  • facilitate and encourage sustainable, healthy lifestyles
  • emphasize a high quality of life in its neighborhoods and communities

According to Beatley, “A biophilic city is more than simply a biodiverse city. It is a place that learns from nature and emulates natural systems, incorporates natural forms and images into its buildings and cityscapes, and designs and plans in conjunction with nature. A biophilic city cherishes the natural features that already exist but also works to restore and repair what has been lost or degraded”.

Vertical forests

Two of the barriers for the construction of green areas inside cities are the lack of space and high prices of real state. The italian architect Stefano Boeri made the news a few years ago when he found one possible solution to these problems. In 2014 he designed the bosco verticale, a vertical forest growing around two towers in Milano, Italy. The design includes more then 11000 plants, among trees, shrubs and floral varieties.

The initiative was a success and Stefano has started developing similar projects in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Nanjing, China, among other cities. The two towers being builtin Nanjing, which will be done already in 2018, will house 1100 trees of 23 local species and another 2500 smaller plants and shrubs. Specialist say the vertical forest will contribute to reduce airborne dust, absorb 25 tons of CO2 every year, and produce about 60 kg of oxygen per day.

By looking at these numbers, it is clear that such projects can make a big difference in the quality of life in big cities. Thankfully, they seem to be getting more popular. The Via Verde project in Mexico, for example, is transforming highway pillars into vertical gardens, and China has plans to build vertical forests in at least five other cities besides Nanjing.

Biophilia and conservation

Some authors suggest that the dissemination of the biophilic hypothesis also has positive consequences for the conservation of wild plants and animals. These positive effects can come in two ways:

  • The first is that by building greener cities, we allow a larger number of animal and plant species to live and survive in our urban areas. Basically, the green areas integrated in the buildings provide food and habitat for other species to grow.
  • The second is that the increased contact with nature increase peoples awareness and interest in conservation. Quite often, people care for what they know, what they see. And if we get used to seeing and interacting with plants and animals, we will want to preserve them. The result would then be an increase in conservation initiatives and the development of more environment-friendly citizens. 

How to get more nature in your life

Now that we know how important nature is for our health and wellbeing, it makes sense to look into how to increase our contact with natural elements. If you live in the countryside or near natural reserver, that shouldn’t be a problem! But what can you do if you live in big urban areas? Well, here are a couple of suggestions:

  • If possible, cultivate a garden. Working in the garden is a relaxing activity that will benefit your mind and get you more physically active
  • Find local parks and squares in your city and try to pass through them on your daily commuting
  • Whenever you go jogging or you’re out for a walk, try to do it in a park or other green areas
  • Use your weekends to discover and explore green areas of your city
  • Make weekend trips to nearby national parks or visit a nice spot in the countryside
  • Have live, potted plants at home an in your office (there is also evidence that these improve indoor air quality considerably!)
  • Have photos, posters and painting of natural landscapes around you. You can have them on your walls, on frames, or even as your computer background image.

Further resources

Do you want to lear more about biophilia or how nature influences our health and wellbeing? We have selected a couple of extra resources for you to explore!

  • Videos: Learn more about biophilia, biophilic design and new initiatives for bringing more green into our cities by watching theses 10 inspiring TED talks about the subject!
  • Books: Have a look at our selection of some of the best books written about biophilia, biophilic design and the benefits of nature to our health.
  • Practices: Increase your daily contact with nature by following these simple practices (* coming soon!)

We hope you have learned a lot and got inspired to include more nature in your life. Do you have anything to say about the subject or do you want to share your experiences? Leave us a comment!

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