You May Squat Down and Feel a Plant




You May Squat Down and Feel a Plant

The faint whisper of rain and running water was still there and it had the same tender note of solitude and perfection.


Once upon a time in Finland, there were little forest spirits who could put spells on people who were too noisy or who treated the forest with disrespect. The victims would experience a condition called metsänpeitto, which translates as being “covered by the forest.” In this state they suddenly found themselves unable to get their bearings. Nothing looked familiar. A kind of intense fascination would overcome them. They could hallucinate and experience supernatural phenomena.

Long after the birth of Christ, strong pagan beliefs continued in the boreal lands between the Baltic and North seas. Metsänpeitto is well documented into the nineteenth century, and, like other religious experiences, was more commonly experienced by women and children. The celebrated Finnish poet V.A. Koskenniemi dedicated a poem to the condition in 1930. It is a favorite of Marko Leppänen, a journalist and activist, who read it aloud to me in sonorous, incomprehensible Finnish on a small island in the Helsinki archipelago.

Metsänpeitto is not necessarily negative,” explained Leppänen, a tall, lean, smooth-skinned man in green woolens standing over a stunted pine. Metsänpeitto is about getting lost in beauty. It could have a taste of freedom, nature-union and joy. The poem is suggesting that.”

In other words, metsänpeitto is a little like forest-bathing on acid. It’s very Finnish. It’s also the opposite of the short-term window-view effect of nature; it represents a deeper surrender to the forces of the forest. Many health experts here believe modern times call for a full, if still only occasional, immersion in nature. They’re trying to figure out how much time outdoors is needed for healthy, ordinary citizens to stay sane.

Leppänen is fascinated by the mind-altering, health-giving effects of wildish landscapes, and he wants to share them with others who visit him on the island of Vartiosaari. One of many small cones of forested bedrock emerging from the Baltic Sea, the rugged isle lies within Helsinki’s city limits. In winter, people walk across the sea ice to get here (and nearly every year someone falls through and drowns). By the time I arrived on a sunny day in May, the ice had melted and we took a quick dinghy ride.

Leppänen, who appears ageless but is actually forty-four, is the island’s unofficial groundskeeper, druid and spokesperson. Amid the ferns, pines and craggy sea cliffs on the tiny island sit a dozen or so houses, a grid of garden plots, and, thanks to Leppänen, a nature trail. Considered a rogue nature preserve, Vartiosaari hosts an unusually rich collection of woody plant species in a variety of landscapes. “The whole island is only eighty-three hectares, yet it feels much larger,” said Leppänen. Many people manage to get lost here, but they seem to be happy after many hours of being lost. I think it’s a health effect to get lost.”

In the early twentieth century, a managing director of Nokia (then a wood pulp and rubber company) liked the island of Vartiosaari so much that he quit his job to live there, building a house called Quisisana, from the Latin, meaning “where one heals.” To enhance the island’s salutary attributes and create more momentum to protect the place from encroaching development, Leppänen cobbled together some funding from the Finnish Forest Research Institute and the city of Helsinki and marked out a “health nature trail,” complete with signposts, recommended exercises and descriptions.

This isn’t your typical park fitness trail. Our first stop was a big gray boulder, a glacial erratic that toppled off an iceberg when the island was once underwater. The far-traveling rock, said Leppänen, reminds us of the importance of moving, of exercise. It’s a metaphysical StairMaster. We walked on a few paces and arrived at a small outdoor chapel featuring a stone altar, a timbered cross and bark-sided benches to remind us of spirituality in nature. Next we considered a mutant pine tree, growing outward at waist-height instead of growing upward. Leppänen called it “the table of Tapio” after a Finnish forest god. “This can be for our offerings, a symbol of gratitude,” he said. “To be grateful is good for your health. Today we can be grateful to ourselves for visiting this forest!” We walked along to a stone-laid labyrinth the size of a large living room. This was constructed by locals in 1999, but it’s a nod to an ancient islander tradition. No one’s really sure what the old labyrinths were for, but to Leppänen they represent mystery, wandering and play.

This is about the time it struck me that the Finland of grown-ups is not unlike my daughter’s old Waldorf preschool in Boulder, complete with paganistic rites, woodcrafts and Middle-earth symbology (in fact, J. R. R. Tolkein was reportedly influenced by the Kalevala, a Finnish creation epic in which the world is born from the cracked egg of a diving duck). The group I was hiking with even broke for a snack circle. They didn’t start singing or making headpieces out of twigs, but I could see it coming.

To the Finnish, being outdoors in nature isn’t about paying homage to nature or to ourselves, the way it tends to be for Americans. We fetishize our life lists, catalog peaks bagged and capture the pristine scenes of grand wilderness. It is largely an individual experience. For the Finnish, though, nature is about expressing a close-knit collective identity. Nature is where they can exult in their nationalistic obsessions of berry-picking, mushrooming, fishing, lake swimming and Nordic skiing. They don’t watch moose; they eat them the way their ancestors did. And they do these things often.

According to large surveys, the average Finn engages in nature-based recreation two to three times per week. Fifty-eight percent of Finns go berry-picking, 35 percent cross-country ski, often in Arctic darkness, under lights in large city parks. Seventy percent hike regularly, compared to the European and American average of about 30 percent. Fifty percent of Finns ride bikes, 20 percent jog and 30 percent walk a dog, and I particularly like this one: 5 percent of the population, or 250,000 people, partake in long-distance ice-skating. All told, over 95 percent of Finns regularly spend time recreating in the outdoors.

It could be that the Finnish exist in something of an arrested state of development, or perhaps the rest of us somehow got overdeveloped. We put down our floral wreaths earlier, acting, for better or worse, like civilized grown-ups. Finland is highly unique among Western countries for urbanizing very late in the game.

“It wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that masses of people finally went to cities. Before that we were forest people,” said Leppänen as we walked the soft forest paths. “We haven’t had opportunity to escape nature. It’s very thin, this urban layer. You can still today see, we are walking here in the capital city and it’s seven kilometers to the heart of the city, yet this could be from hundreds of kilometers away. This is an intact nature landscape. It could be different, if we were living many generations in an urban setting.” To him, civilization is like the spring sea ice, transparent, the wild pulse below still sensate.

Being just two generations removed from the land—and being a nation with few immigrants—means that nearly everyone still has a grandparent on a farm or woodlot. Those grandparents still live in country houses, or they own a modest, seasonal country house even if they’ve moved to the city. Finland has 5 million people, and 2 million kesämökki, or “summer cottages,” so almost every family still has a rural, nature-based anchor. It’s a middle-class real estate paradise.

Finland scores high on global scales of happiness. Many people assume this is because there isn’t much income disparity here. But perhaps it’s also because everyone has access to what makes them happy—a bunch of lakes, forests and coastlines, combined with ridiculously long, state-sanctioned vacations and a midnight sun. (Of course, there is a flipside, the grim, dark winters, when Finns drink too much and act up, unless they’re skiing.)

Like many Finnish Gen-Xers, Marko Leppänen grew up chasing butterflies. He spent nights in trees by himself as an eleven-year-old while his American counterparts were playing Pac-Man in suburban split-levels where the only moss was the color of the shag carpet.

Until recently, Finns have lived off the land, both emotionally and economically. Sure, Finland came up with the flip phone, Angry Birds and the wildly popular set of comics by Tove Jansson built around Moomin the talking snowman. But the nation’s dominant industry is forest products, in the form of renewable fuel for clean-burning energy plants and paper pulp. Finland is the most forested country in Europe, with trees covering 74 percent of the land. As one visiting British journalist noted, “the view was a bit samey.” The forests are mostly privately owned in small holdings, but, mirabile dictu, at least to an American mindset, there is virtually no such thing as trespassing. Finnish law operates under the concept of jokamiehenoikeus, or “everyman’s right,” which means anyone can traipse over anyone else’s land, picking berries, picking mushrooms, picking their nose, whatever. They can even camp and make campfires. They only things they can’t do are cut timber or hunt game. (Right-to-roam laws in a few other aggressively democratic European countries such as Denmark, Norway and Scotland are similar but not quite as lenient.)

To many Americans, this sounds like a socialist takeover of private property (contrast these laws to the “my castle” laws in states like Montana, where you actually have the protected right to shoot trespassers dead). To the Finnish, though, jokamiehenoikeus is the essence of freedom, because it means you can walk forever. In a small country where everyone is distantly related, the please-share-nicely concept works.

It makes sense, then, that the Finnish are uniquely devoted to their forests, and are coughing up cash to study them if for no other reason than to justify their constitutionally protected frolicking. Although they do have other motivations, and some of them we can relate to: the Finns report increasing levels of stress, depression and obesity as they move into urban environments. That national recreation survey that mentioned long-distance ice-skating also noted that, in almost all categories, frequency of outdoor activities has dropped in the last ten years, no doubt replaced by staring at brightly lit devices inside their houses. Even the Finns can’t resist them.

The country has some choices to make. If time in forests can be shown to reduce health-care costs, improve mental health and promote fitness, planners can use that information to argue against paving places like Vartiosaari as Helsinki grows. Even if we think the Finns are gnomish outliers, we can likely learn a few things from what researchers here have discovered.

LIISA TYRVÄINEN FREQUENTS a Helsinki restaurant called Kaarna, which means “Bark,” as in tree, not dog. She used to be an ecologist, but she got tired of feeling that her research didn’t really matter to planners and policy-makers, so she got a Ph.D. in economics. She studied how things like forest and park views dramatically increase housing values. “The phenomenon of what nature means to Finnish politicians is all about how to valuate it,” she said while giving me a tour of Helsinki’s parks. She became intrigued by the research out of Japan indicating that forests had concrete physiological effects on human health. In a country like Finland, which is trying to figure out how to manage its vast forests for the benefit of people and industry, the health piece, if real, seemed like it could be another useful column in the national spreadsheets. Is it worth saving natural areas or not? “I’m wanting more data. I don’t want to be part of rubbish research, hugging trees,” she said.

Now Tyrväinen runs a research division at the National Resources Institute of Finland, a government-funded agency. She visited Japan and then invited some of the shinrin yoku researchers over to Finland to advise her on setting up similar experiments. She had some issues with the Japanese protocols and wanted to tweak the experimental design. Miyazaki and his colleagues were mostly studying young Japanese men in small groups. Tryväinen wanted bigger studies and better controls. In the Japanese experiment I observed, for instance, one group was loaded into a van and driven a couple of hours to a park, while the other group went straight to downtown. It’s possible that some of the lower blood pressure and cortisol levels attributed to “nature” could just be the result of more time to space out on the drive.

Tyrväinen secured close to $16 million for a series of studies known as the Green Health and Research Project. In Tyrväinen’s Japan-inspired studies, all participants sat in a van for the same amount of time and they included more women, more adults, and more office workers. Also, the Japan team studied hard-core urban vs. hard-core nature. Tyrväinen wanted to look at environments available to everyone in the city: a busy street, a managed city park, and a more wild forest park. The managed park resembles parts of New York’s Central Park that are manicured and landscaped, such as the boat pond and surrounding meadows. The forest park, Helsinki’s beloved Central Park, reminds me of the deep parts of the Ramble but with bigger, taller pines and some straight avenues.

Tyrväinen also wanted to measure blood pressure because of its known links to stress and disease. “It’s the long-term physiological benefits we’re interested in. We’d like to follow these people.” And she was hunting for more granular information: “What is an optimal amount, location, type and size of nature spaces for health in everyday living environments?”

Tyrväinen’s team is interested in what ails normal working people and what helps them. Their aim is not to improve productivity per se but to lower national health-care costs and to provide city planners with data for managing green space. If she can help make people feel better, that’s fine too, but she’s an economist, not a social worker. In Europe, 60 percent of job-related health problems are, like bad backs, musculoskeletal. But the next-highest category (14 percent) is psychological: stress, depression and anxiety. The Finnish call it “burnout syndrome,” and it significantly taxes both employers and government health agencies.

I had to guffaw a bit when I heard about Finnish worker stress. The Finns typically work eight-hour days. About 80 percent of workers are unionized. They get five-week vacations, pensions and health care, as well as one-year paid parental leave (men as well as women are encouraged to take time off). When I was sending scores of emails overseas for this book, I would frequently receive messages that the recipient was on parental leave for the next several seasons and not checking email. If these workers are stressed out, what did this bode for Americans, 25 percent of whom get no paid vacation at all?

The Finnish government is funding Tyrväinen because it knows it has a limited pool of workers in a small country. As her colleague Jessica de Bloom told me, “In other countries, you select the right person for the job and if that person gets burned out, then you find another person. Here, you keep that individual as long as possible, you keep them happy.”

So while the Japanese researchers had given their subjects questionnaires about mood, Tyrväinen’s team decided to add other quantifiable measures of restoration, vitality and creativity, all related to happiness on the job. If the Kaplans’ Attention Restoration Theory is correct, the Finns would expect to see higher scores after time in nature. Sample questions for restoration (participants are supposed to rate the statements on a scale): “I feel calm.” “I have enthusiasm and energy for everyday routines.” “I feel focused and alert.” Sample question for vitality: “I feel alive and vital.” And for creativity: “I got several new ideas.” While self-answered questionnaires aren’t as sexy or reliable as objective measures of brain waves and hormone levels (sometimes the participants can guess what the researchers are after, potentially biasing results), in larger studies they tend to be pretty accurate, especially in conjunction with other types of physiological or cognitive tests.

In one study, Tyrväinen and her colleagues asked 3,000 city dwellers about their emotional and restorative experiences in nature. They found the biggest boosts occurred after five hours a month in natural settings. Tyrväinen wanted to drill deeper into the data, so for another study, her team took 82 office workers, mostly women, to each of the three different sites: city center, manicured park and forest park. At each place, before and after sitting for fifteen minutes and then after walking leisurely for thirty minutes, the researchers collected questionnaires, saliva samples, blood-pressure and heart-rate data. Throughout, the volunteers were instructed not to speak to each other (to eliminate the positive psychological benefits of socializing). If people felt happy, it would not be from making friends.

The results turned out to be what scientists call beautiful. There were significant effects and linear dose responses that followed predictions. Compared to sitting in the van, the volunteers did not feel psychologically “restored” in the city, but they did in the park and forest. They experienced these changes relatively quickly, after just fifteen minutes of sitting outside. After the short walk, these restorative feelings continued to increase. The more time people spent in the green areas, the better they reported feeling, and the effects were slightly stronger for those in the wilder forest. But the benefits weren’t just about relaxation; on measures of vitality, which you’d think might rise in the city, only nature did the trick, although it took the full forty-five minutes. Both the vitality and restoration scores dropped in the city, to the point where participants in the park or forest felt 20 percent better than their urban peers. The greenies also felt stronger positive emotions and lower negative emotions, and the respondents reported feeling more creative. On the objective measures, cortisol levels dropped in all three settings, perhaps a result of being away from work demands, speculated Tyrväinen.

The good news for city dwellers is that just fifteen to forty-five minutes in a city park, even one with pavement, crowds and some street noise, were enough to improve mood, vitality and feelings of restoration.

“The results of our experiment suggest that the large urban parks (more than 5 hectares) and large urban woodlands have positive well-being effects on urban inhabitants, and in particular for healthy middle-aged women,” the study concluded, as published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. The results supported the earlier five-hours-a-month recommendation. But the researchers also noted the dose-response relationship: the more nature, the better you feel. To elevate mood and stave off depression most reliably, Tyrväinen told me, “five hours per month is the lowest amount of time to get the effect, then after, if you can go for ten hours, you will reach a new level of feeling better and better.”

I did some quick calculations. Five hours per month means getting out there in the verdure a couple of times a week for about thirty minutes. To achieve ten hours a month requires spending about thirty minutes in nature five days per week. Or, as one of Tryväinen’s colleagues told me, “two to three days per month outside the city would bring the same effect.” No wonder country houses are so popular; the Finnish nervous system needs them. The Finnish- approved nature cure won’t work for everyone, because these results reflect averages. But in a country with a high proportion of mildly depressed people, if it works for even a small percentage it will translate into huge savings for the national health-care system.

And in Finland, parks and woodlands are an easy solution. “Nature here is cheap and free for everyone,” said Tryväinen.

IF TYRVÄINEN IS interested in valuing forests for the sake of the Finnish economy, one of her collaborators, Kalevi Korpela, is motivated by a desire to boost the dark Nordic psyche. The Finnish word for healthy, terve, derives from the word for “hardy pine,” able to withstand storms. Finns withstand a lot: long, dark winters, freezing temperatures, a collective historic memory of being regularly invaded and colonized by Swedes and Russians. From the Swedes, they learned brooding. From the Russians, they learned drinking. The Finns themselves are notoriously taciturn, introverted and a bit shy. One study found that of many nationalities in the world, the Finns are the most comfortable with long silences. They are not chatty. There’s been much discussion of the Scandinavian paradox: countries like Sweden, Denmark and Finland rank very high on happiness indexes, but they also suffer high rates of suicide.

Korpela’s grandfather fought the brutal winter battles of World War II and, like so many survivors of his generation, ended up suffering silently. Nobody knew how to talk to these broken men about their pain, which was immortalized in classics like Väinö Linna’s The Unknown Soldier, Finland’s all-time best-selling novel. Korpela, an experimental psychologist at the University of Tampere, has spent most of the last twenty years studying how different environments make us feel. Unusual for psychologists two decades ago, he was most drawn to positive psychology, or what made us feel good. From his experiences during childhood, when he and his older brother had the run of the town while their parents worked long hours, he knew that place mattered to his own psyche and might for others as well.

Tampere itself is not terribly impressive geographically. A city of about 250,000 people ninety minutes north of Helsinki by train, it was founded by Swedish King Gustav III at the relatively late date of 1779. The city sits along a set of rapids—now corralled into a hydro dam—on the Tammerkoski River. Overlooking the city is the highest esker in the world. (I didn’t know what an esker is either—it’s basically a glacial moraine.) This feature is more like a geological speed bump than a mountain, rising only 85 meters. The fact that the Finns are so proud of it tells you what you need to know about the country’s topography. You won’t find majestic peaks or canyons. Marshes are so predominant here that the country gets 9 percent of its electricity from peat gas. Finland is the Saudi Arabia of peat. Still, the close connection between people and the land is evident from Korpela’s own life and work.

“As a teenager, I used to sometimes go run in the woods and stop at a big rock where you could see the lake,” he said. “I noticed it was a way of calming myself and regulating my emotions so I had this habit of going and stopping there.” Now a trim professor sporting facial hair reminiscent of Freud’s goatee period, Korpela has become known for studies about “favorite places” and their positive influence on mental health. In his studies, when he asks respondents to name their favorite places, over 60 percent describe a natural area such as lake, beach, park, garden or woods.

If there was something special about nature, Korpela wanted to find out how quickly it worked on our emotional brains. If the psychoevolutionary theory of Roger Ulrich (hospital window guy) is correct, then our responses to pleasant nature spots should be automatic, and perhaps immediate. One classic way to measure positive and negative emotions is to show people pictures of faces and have them rate them for moods like fear, anger, happiness and surprise, while timing the exercise. Happier people will recognize happiness in others more quickly, and take longer to recognize fear or disgust.

Korpela primed a group of volunteers by quickly showing them photographs of various scenes that had been manipulated along a spectrum from urban to buildings-with-trees to just trees or parkland without structures. After each photo, the volunteers were asked to identify the emotions in pictures of the faces he showed them. Interestingly, after looking at scenes with more nature, the subjects were quicker to recognize happiness and slower to recognize negative emotions like anger and fear. The inverse was true after the more urban shots. In other words, looking at nature photos made them behave (instantly) in happier ways. To Korpela, the study confirmed Ulrich’s hypothesis of nature causing a rapid emotional response at a subconscious level.

As we’ve seen in Part One, nature appears to have some immediate effects: a lower pulse rate and the beginnings of a parasympathetic nervous system response leading to feelings of peace and well-being. Korpela scoured the literature and came up with a sort of time-response matrix. Thanks to his faces study, he knew the quickest responses: “Within 200 milliseconds, people react positively when they see images of nature,” he explained. “The picture you’ve seen affects how you respond, because the picture evokes your emotions.” Moving up the matrix, Ulrich’s experiments with the bloody woodshop videos followed by nature videos showed a decrease in subjects’ heart rates, in facial muscle tension, and changes in skin conductance typically occurring within 4 to 7 minutes. The Japanese and Finnish studies found lower blood pressure, lower circulating cortisol and improved mood after 15 to 20 minutes. At around 45 or 50 minutes of being in nature, many subjects show stronger cognitive performance as well as feelings of vitality and psychological reflection. What if Korpela could thread all these observations together in a way that enhanced the effects in a real-world application?

He came up with the idea of a “Power Trail,” a well-signed, self-guided nature walk that maximizes nature’s beneficial effects. Hikers wouldn’t need a specially certified ranger or a class or a big healing forest, just some views, ideally including water, and strategic instructions. In 2010, the Ikaalinen Spa in central Finland let Korpela construct a trail network around its property with government funding (and about the word “spa”: lest you think it connotes an exclusive enclave for ladies in lululemon, you should know that, in Finland, spa visits are a federal benefit for workers in need. Yet another reason to brave the sea ice and move to Finland).

The trail was an immediate success, according to Korpela and Tyrväinen, and now there are half a dozen similar ones throughout northern Europe. They surveyed the hikers who use them, and found that 79 percent said their moods had improved, with greater boosts in those who walked the longer loop (6.6 kilometers) than the shorter loop (4.4 km). Gender, age and, interestingly, weather had no effect on the results. But they also found that about 15 to 20 percent of people just don’t dig it. These people may hate bugs, or the sky, or whatever, and no matter how biophilic their brains are supposed to be, they simply can’t relax in nature.

To test it out for myself, I headed out to spa-ville with Korpela in his silver Peugeot. To be honest, it was sort of relaxing from the get-go. I was also experiencing what social scientists call the novelty effect, in which things that are new and fresh can make us feel good. This is why we like to travel, peruse the photos in National Geographic and even fall in love serially. I was in love with the lack of midweek traffic in rural Finland. It was May, and so we passed rolling fields of canola flowers, young corn and wheat. We stopped for lunch at a café in a log house that was painted baby blue. We grazed from a buffet featuring slabs of moose with lingonberries. The novelty effect was in full swing.

Once settled into the spa’s parking lot, Korpela pulled out a blood-pressure machine. I sat silently for two minutes and then measured my levels, which were already in the mellow zone. Leaving Korpela to his own personal Power Trail moment, I set out on the path, which meandered past the spa’s wood-burning saunas, around a lake, and literally over hill and dale. It was a walk in the country, pleasant but not spectacular. There were birds and blossoms and trees along with a few houses and tractors and woodpiles. Being alone, said Korpela, is a good way to maximize certain benefits, especially the ones having to do with self-reflection. Of course, the Finns would say being alone in nature is best; they are notoriously introverted. But thirty years ago, the psychologist Joachim Wohlwill agreed, writing that natural environments experienced in solitude seemed especially restorative to people who are mentally fatigued or socially stressed. I get it. I love being alone in nature when it feels safe. (Women, not surprisingly, tend to rate being alone in nature as more stressful than men do, because of concerns for safety.)

Right after setting out, I came to a sign on the trail, marking the first of nine stations. I pulled out a piece of paper with Korpela’s English translations. Station one was a cognitive task: it showed two line drawings of a busy picnic scene around a lake. I was to find and count all the differences between the two images. For example, one included a woodpecker on a tree limb while the other showed no woodpecker. There was also a brief questionnaire asking me to rank how I felt on a scale of 1 to 5. This is called the Restorative Outcome Scale, frequently carted out for psych studies. The statements include “I am feeling calm and relaxed,” “I am alert and focused,” “I’m enthusiastic and energetic” and “All my everyday worries are away.” I’d repeat both tasks at the end of the hike and compare my scores.

Farther along, station two sported a sign instructing me to look at the ground and the sky, breathe deeply and relax my shoulders. “Feel your mind and body becoming calm,” it said. When I looked up, I saw power lines, which deflated me, until I remembered that this trail is lit for winter skiing. That made me happy again.

Station three asked walkers to listen to the sounds of nature and “let your thoughts run free.” Also, “you may squat down and feel a plant.” Station four asked me to walk to a spot nearby where I feel peaceful. Station five: identify your mood and state of mind. And so on, through to finding an element of nature from the view in front of you that could be a metaphor for yourself. I chose a tall tree sheltering smaller trees. I missed my kids and was getting sentimental now.

At the end of the walk, I retook the cognitive test and questionnaire. If you score more than ten points higher on the scale, the interpretive sign essentially tells you that you need to get your butt into nature as often as you possibly can. If your scores were the same or lower, you should just go home and turn on some European football. I scored five points higher, which meant “this kind of walking suits you and you should try it again sometime,” translated Korpela. The whole exercise felt a bit like taking a personality quiz in the back of Mademoiselle. “What Does your Favorite Snack Food Say About You?” Or from the Internet: “Which Muppet Are You?” Psychological questionnaires gained popularity in the 1920s, when Carl Jung was writing about personality types. Not sure Jung had Kermit in mind, but people love these tests. If they get people out hiking more, so much the better.

My cognitive test scores and my blood-pressure results were more inconclusive. My compare-the-illustrations scores were the same. My systolic pressure dropped quite a bit—six points—but my diastolic went up nine points. A lot of things affect blood pressure, including states of hydration, so I’d call it a question mark. My heart rate, though, dropped a point. I was relaxed before the hike and still relaxed after it. For now, I was off to sip some calendula tea and sample Finnish chocolate from a farm café. I was beginning to wonder if reporting about the pleasures of nature was making me too mentally stable to be a reliable research subject.

But for stressed-out workers, Korpela sees quick, regular visits to green space as having enormous potential to relieve the daily grind. Based on his studies, he said “a thirty-to-forty-minute walk seems to be enough for physiological changes and mood changes and probably for attention.”

The five-hours-a-month recommendation stands for those of us in need of a short tonic and as a way to ward off everyday blahs. But what if you’re not just a frazzled worker? What if you’ve got bigger problems? It would be up to the Scots and the Swedes to figure out how to get already seriously depressed people into the woods and gardens and make them stay there for a while. Twelve weeks ought to do it.




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