What the Healthiest Communities Have in Common
Good morning, afternoon and evening.
Welcome to Self-Mastery — a place for exploring timeless ideas to become the architect of your mind, create yourself, and do less, better.
Would you dismiss the chance to be emperor of a nation, to spend your life as a cabbage farmer?
That’s what Diocletian did.
"If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed", he replied when begged to return to the throne.
Diocletian was a former roman emporer. One of the few emperors of the third and fourth centuries to die naturally, and the first in the history of the empire to retire voluntarily.
He was arguably the most powerful character on the planet. But he traded that lifestyle to become a cabbage farmer. A rather odd declaration you might think. But from this, you can quickly learn that everyone is rather the same.
Time in nature is some of the most beautiful time spent
It’s not just a trait of the famous and powerful, but I think we all feel this way at times. During periods of incredible stress, there is this pull we feel to not just quiet, but to nature.
Have you ever felt it? At a time of great stress or frustration, you just want to get outside, surrounding yourself with the comforting trees and the songs of the grass?
There’s a reason why many health retreats and recovery programmes happen in remote, rural mountain areas or the open countryside. And there is a reason why many people turned to gardening during the coronavirus pandemic.
When you daydream about retirement, what do you see? Some of us visualise ourselves standing on a beach, excavating the warm, coarse sand with the tips of our feet. Others picture mountain houses or a wealth of fresh land to go for walks around.
These images feel stronger when we’re under work or school stress. I can’t tell you the number of times I was at work or class, daydreaming about riding my bike through the French Dolomites or the Spanish coast. Or just playing video games all day.
We don’t just want quiet when we’re stressed—we want to see the sky. Feel the grass. Hear the rivers. Touch the air.
For good reason.
In these spaces, we heal.
I’ve started to delve deeper into Japanese wellness practises—I think there are lots of practices of self-mastery we can absorb from this rich culture. And the term I mentioned: shinrinyoku (森林浴 ), is one of them
It is also known as forest bathing.
It can be prescribed by doctors, though I know many people who would much rather an antidepressant of some sort, to help patients cope with high levels of stress, anxiety or loss.
Time in nature has clearly potent health benefits; such as strengthening your immune system, lowering mortality and illness, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-confidence. I know, right? All these benefits, simply from getting more fresh air.
It should be of little surprise to you then that people in “Blue Zones”—where people tend to live far longer than average and experience very low rates of chronic disease and high rates of longevity—live a very nature-rich lifestyle.
Perhaps you have heard of the Okinawans already, from the village of Ogimi. They are famous for their nature-rich lifestyle which comprises plenty of gardening and sunshine. All are factors that keep their hearts strong, bones dense, and a positive attitude towards life.
Shinrinyoku is not exclusive to Japan. In Norway, it is similar to friluftsliv. In Germany, it is similar to waldeinsamkeit—the sublime or spiritual feeling one has while being alone in the woods. And in the United States, 34 states recognise time in nature as an effective therapy; it can be prescribed by a doctor as treatment.
How much time in nature do we need?
There is no one-size-fits-all rule, but a 2019 study found that spending at least 2 hours a week in nature positively correlated with higher self-reports of health and well-being.
It didn’t matter if the individual was old or had health issues, or if the 2 hours were in one go over the weekend or done in short intervals. Those who spent at least 2 hours a week in nature felt a positive boost in physical and mental well-being, compared to those who didn’t.
That’s around 15 minutes a day. In a park. Or your garden. Or somewhere with grass and a few trees. All it takes is a few mindful minutes in nature’s presence.
History doesn’t change things that bring us peace.
Some things about humans don’t change. And like eating well and exercising, spending time in nature is just as rejuvenating to our quality of life, no matter the culture or generation.
We think clearer, find peace, soothe our problems and boost our spirit in the outdoors—that’s incredible power.
And as much as we’ve grown to spend more time outdoors and a live lifestyle communicated through digital means, humans will always love the pleasantries of fresh air, the beauty of watching plants grow and the strength of moving water beneath our feet.
We come back to it because it makes us happy.
And so when looking after your health, remember to eat well and get exercise, but don’t forget to visit nature. While we may not all have quick access to a forest or ocean, a walk in the park, a weekend hike, a picnic or an open window to let yourself feel the sun for a bit has superb healing qualities.
Nature really is the best medicine.
What’s on My Mind
Motivation exists where there is momentum.
“It was one day a week and so I had accepted my fate as spending my Saturdays being friendless, silent, and uncomfortable. Until one day a girl in my class decided to approach me with a simple aisatsu: ohayo!
I did a double-take, thinking that there was no way she was saying good morning to me, but she smiled and so I returned one back. It was the first time I really felt my presence being recognized by someone else.”
— The Simple Skill of Japanese Aisatsu So Anyone Can Be More Sociable and Likable
“The best way to start optimising our health is to learn from healthier, happier and more successful people than us. You find them, then you ask, “What are they doing? What habits do they stick to the most? What ideas can I capture and use in a way that works best for me?”
— 5 Habits of Highly Healthy People
I never wish to be easily defined.
— Franz Kafka
Favourite Thing This Week
An interview with Maya Angelou revealed some of my favourite things about her. I learnt about these practices some time ago but this was a great capture of her signature writing habits.
She did most of her writing in hotel rooms
Everything is non-fiction, including fiction
She wrote with a bible next to her, just to hear the rhythm and absorb the language
Question of the Week
Did you drink enough water every day this week?
PS: I recently found a podcast episode with Anna Codrea-Rado, a British freelancer who, in two hours, candidly dispelled every worry I had about working for myself. After it finished, I ran to the next episode I could find with her in it. I was mesmerized by the realisation through her ideas that freelancing can be simple—not better or worse than other options, in respect, but different—but life-changing. It inspired me. So I bought her book as it was timely, and I’m loving it so far. I expect it will be my handbook for the many years to come.
Thank you for your time. Hope you have a truly wonderful week.