You probably spend 23 hours of your day in sheltered indoor rooms. Maybe that last hour is for commuting and the occasional shopping trip. 90% of your time inside sheltered rooms you are probably either sitting and looking at a screen, or lying down. We’re very enclosed by the safe, stagnating bubble of civilization. You don’t need to be fit, energetic, or healthy to live in that environment, but you aren’t going to thrive as a human being.
Civilization is the cultural and technological bubble we’ve constructed for ourselves to do incredible things, but as its capabilities touch more parts of our lives it removes the obvious need to know or be connected to anything outside of it.
Few people today have ever seen what the night sky actually looks like. Light pollution from cities blocks the view of the thousands of stars that should be visible at night. As cities grow, artificial lights spread, and more of us are born and raised in urban centers where we’ll never see what a real night sky. What most of us see is a dim, hazy red dotted with ten to twelve gloomy little stars and the moon. It is not the canvas of pure black speckled with the brilliant white light of thousands of whirling stars stretching to the horizon in all directions that it actually is. We can’t feel the thrill of seeing this and are disconnected from that natural experience.
Many people through history have talked about the problems this disconnect between human and nature creates. The Roman writers Virgil, Cato, and Horace all praised a life lived far from the city where you can till the soil, and both Greek and Roman authors wrote a genre of fiction called “pastoral” which idealized the countryside and characters who live in it. Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century said that humans in a “state of nature” have uncorrupted morals and that the more civilized we become, the greater our corruption. Henry David Thoreau in the 19th century wrote about the moral problems of urban living, but he also focused on the idea of spiritual discovery in wilderness living, and more worldly benefits like greater self-reliance.
In the early 20th century organizations like the Boy Scouts started to promote the values of self-reliance, morality, courage, and outdoor ruggedness. The fear at the time was those qualities were being lost in the increasingly urban world. Theodore Roosevelt embodied the movement to strengthen those values with his love of the outdoors. For him, the wilderness was more than a place to escape and heal, it was where he forged himself into the man who charged up San Juan hill in the Spanish-American war, went on expeditions through the African plains and South American jungle, and became President. He spent many months as a young adult in the harsh Dakota badlands as a rancher and deputy sheriff. Despite his famed qualities as the outdoors man who gave The Man in the Arena speech he was just as capable of thriving in urban life. He was born into the ultra wealthy Roosevelt clan in the heart of New York city. He was a Harvard graduate and throughout his life he entertained heads of state and European royalty. “I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota,” he once said.
There are two worlds out there, and to be healthy, capable, self-reliant human beings we need to experience and thrive in both. Civilization provides the comfort and resources necessary for great forward leaps, new technology, and new ideas. But it is constructed as a separate environment from the larger world and designed to satisfy human desires. Challenges, obstacles, and the harsh realities of the world are smoothed and eliminated by design. You turn on a tap and drinkable water flows. You need to go from one place to another and a smooth road is there, paved over all obstacles for you to travel along. When you want to speak with someone hundreds of kilometers away you tap a button on your phone.
The Human Thing to Do
We are still the same species we were more than 10,000 years ago. As a species we do not thrive in comfort, with all our desires met. The problem is that is precisely the kind of life we design civilization to give us. When there are no challenges we feel compelled to meet we are lazy, stagnant, and easily beaten. This isn’t surprising. A body that does not push itself through exercise is weak, slow, and easily tires. It is the same with the brain. Just look up what aspect of the brain you want to improve. Exercising your brain by pushing it will always be the most important method. Want to improve your memory? Then exercise your memory. Want to improve your math skills? Then do math.
Luckily we also evolved to enjoy pushing ourselves. It seems counter-intuitive, but studies show that the moments we are at our happiest aren’t the moments we are relaxing, but the moments we are engaged in strenuous physical or mental work.
Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times — although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.
Besides happiness and satisfaction there are health benefits of merely being outdoors whether you are doing anything strenuous or not. Group walks outdoors significantly lower rates of depression and stress. A study with 18,500 participants had them “doing something wild” for 30 consecutive days. “Something wild” ranged from activities like camping down to “smelling a flower.” After the 30 days were finished the study found a 30% increase in the number of participants saying their health was “excellent,” children reported higher levels of self-esteem, and also found improvements in mental health including reduced depression and stress.
It is obvious how spending time outdoors can push you physically, but consider how it could also push you mentally. Creativity and resourcefulness are not abilities you either have or do not have. They are mental skills that require training. Most of the time our needs and desires are met by products and services specifically designed to meet those needs and desires. You don’t often need to look at an object and come up with a new way of using it in the bubble of civilization. If you’ve ever watched a documentary following people who spend a lot of time outdoors you’ll quickly realize they are probably more creative and resourceful than you are with physical world.
It Will Make You Stronger
Your body isn’t a temple. Temples are to be kept pristine, and treated delicately. Your body and mind is a machine that needs to be used so it doesn’t rust. When you are spending time outdoors you are using your body by hiking, jumping, climbing, and carrying things. You’re exercising.
Strenuous outdoor activity can provide a better workout than the gym. Carrying rocks and logs is like weight lifting. Tree or rock-climbing is better than any equivalent exercise you can find in a gym, and chopping wood or digging exercises a lot of different muscles. Even hiking burns more calories than walking on a treadmill because of the terrain, and it is easier to get bored and give up while on a treadmill than hiking through a beautiful landscape. Rough terrain will also improve your balance in ways a treadmill or step machine never could.
It isn’t just your overall strength, endurance, and toughness that being outside helps. Your eyes will appreciate it because of how much less strained they will be looking over landscapes instead of computer screens. Your sense of awareness and skills of observation improve as well. Anyone who has gone hiking far from the safety of civilization will know the subtle, constant thrill of looking around and wondering what may lurk under every rock, shrub, dark nook, and turn of the trail.
Our immune systems are not muscles, but you can think of them benefiting in similar ways. The more biodiversity our immune system encounters in childhood, the more resistant we are to developing asthma and cardiovascular disease, and we are less likely to develop allergies. A Japanese study found hiking twice a day, in a natural environment, for three days resulted in a 40% increase in white blood cell counts, and remained 15% higher a month later.
Physical toughness is a difficult concept to define. It’s not raw strength, but a measure of the physical discomfort you can endure. Thick, tough skin allows you to lift objects that are rough on your hands and not be bothered. Weight lifters in the gym will notice their hands thickening and developing calluses that make lifting easier. If you’ve ever tried doing a chin-up without calloused hands you’ll find it painful.
Enduring extreme temperatures is another measure of toughness. If you spend time enduring cold environments your body will start adapting by generating more heat, and you will learn that you can endure, safely, more discomfort from the cold than you originally thought.
It Will Build Confidence and Willpower
The greater the variety of situations you have experienced and dealt with, the more confident you are in your abilities. Not knowing what to do or what you are capable of doing destroys confidence and makes us indecisive and nervous. The more isolated you are from the larger world, the more you exist within the comfortable benefits of the bubble of civilization, the smaller the variety of situations you’ll have experienced and know how to deal with.
Experiencing scenarios without the benefits of civilization allows you to realize you are capable of living without those benefits. When you experience tough situations you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can get through them again. This is the same concept used by the military in basic training. It’s far more extreme than going on a camping trip, but the concept is the same — once you’ve experienced discomforts and dangers you’ll know you are capable of handling them again. The more experiences you have, and the more discomforts you endure, the more you’ll know you can handle and the more confident you’ll be.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister considers willpower to be a mental energy you direct towards self-control. It is the energy you expend when you control your impulses, emotional reactions, your ability to concentrate on a task, and how long it will take for you to give up on something difficult. Luckily willpower and toughness are not qualities you either have or don’t have. They can be improved through training. Purposely subjecting yourself to discomfort improves your willpower. Baumeister talks about how giving yourself small inconveniences trains your mind to deal with bigger ones. You can practice small discomforts by doing things like refusing to eat dessert for a day, or walking up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Of course spending time outdoors is loaded with ways to train your willpower.
Everyone is at different levels of experience with the outdoors, but almost all of us would benefit from being outside more. Leave the city and hike a trail. Wade through a stream and wander into a forest. Climb a hill and look over a valley. Go on an adventure, whether short or long, to a place where you can see the stars. Learn how to exist in more than urban environments and endure more than a climate controlled room. Spending time in nature is good for your health, your physique, and makes you tougher and more confident. That may sound too good to be true, but we did evolve as a species in the wilderness. You might say, “but we design our civilization around us. Surely that means we designed it to be even better for us than dangerous and unpredictable nature.” The problem is most of the time we design our civilization around what we want in immediate moments, like a television remote, rather than what we need for the long term, like exercise and discomfort to make us better people.