biophilia: a human longing to connect to nature

Here in South Florida, it’s not uncommon to spend summers avoiding as much of the outdoors as possible (with the exception of boating, beaching, and that kind of thing). It’s just so damn hot. I walk the dogs earlier in the morning and later at night to avoid the heat of the day, and even at 8 AM, when I step outside, I am struck by the heat. You’d think after 20 years of living here, I’d be ready for it, but it’s like a smack of humidity in the face every time.

But as the pandemic stretches on and our lives continue to reshape themselves to our new realities, many of us are spending more time outdoors. I have no plans to return to the gym– it just doesn’t feel right for me. The space inside my house is limited, and likely to have some kind of audience. So I’ve taken to doing almost everything outside: yoga practice, meditation, mobility, mace, and kettlebells.

My favorite time to work out is around 3 PM, which is also, unfortunately, a very hot, blazing-sun-overhead time of day. These sessions are sweaty and sometimes that’s not a lot of fun (it’s hard to get a good grip on a mace, and it makes Upward-Facing Bow pretty hazardous)– but I have loved the feeling of pushing through the heat to find new levels of strength or endurance.

One of the reasons is likely my biophilia, which is what biologist E.O. Wilson calls our hardwired instinct for spending time outdoors.

The etymology of biophilia is literally “love of life,” which is completely appropriate. Spending time outdoors, whether it is watching the seemingly endless ocean waves, hiking through the mountains, or just sitting on my back porch meditating with the squirrels and the bees, gives me an expansive, positive feeling that really does fill me with something like love. Actually, just writing this paragraph gives me a feeling of friendliness and joy that I feel ballooning in my chest.

“The human brain evolved in an environment that was defined by constant contact with and reliance on the natural world. The emotions that modern humans tend to feel in nature– awe, contentment, curiosity, wanderlust– contributed to early humans’ ability to thrive as a species that had to find its place in a complex and constantly changing landscape. These emotional responses to nature are still deeply ingrained in us, and the more frequently we experience them, the more fulfilled we are.”

Dr. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement

It makes sense that we human animals have a connection to the outdoors. After all, we evolved there, and it was only relatively recently in our history that we moved indoors and shut ourselves away from the natural world. In their 2012 research paper on the benefits of spending time outdoors, psychologists Holli-Anne Passmore and Andrew Howell write, “Connecting with nature embeds us more deeply into the existence of life beyond he course of our single lifetime.”

Being outdoors, witnessing the natural cycles of growth and decay, takes us out of our ruminating mind and brings us back into an engaged, mindful presence. It gives us a grounding and centering reminder of our essential wholeness and our right to belong to something greater than ourselves. Perhaps this is what Mary Oliver is speaking to in her popular poem Wild Geese:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Excerpt from Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

I never would have imagined that I would enjoy sweating outdoors as much as I do, but it has made me more durable in my body, and more joyful and expansive in my soul. Sun on my skin, breeze (barely) cooling the sweat, the green things growing and the small animals moving in their own rhythms: these are the joys of biophilia. I don’t plan to give it up anytime soon.

10 thoughts on “biophilia: a human longing to connect to nature

  1. Laura, I love walking, hiking and working outdoors. At my age, I must warm up and warm down, even when I mow the grass. The warrior pose is an excellent warm up routine. I agree with the enjoyment of working up a sweat out in nature. Keith

  2. Holy cow, yes! Leave it to you 🙂 to find a word for something that is so hard wired in us that it is difficult to articulate. Even thought it is difficult to articulate, we intuit when we are not outside enough. When I am not in nature enough, there is a palpable absence of biophilic experiences in my life. I can also sense a sort of slight buzz – if that makes sense – a signal that I need to get outside. Thanks for teaching me a new word!

    1. Thank you, Kelly! I agree completely that there is definitely a longing, an intuitive sense of lack when we’re not outside enough. Sometimes I think I don’t even realize what’s “wrong” until I get to spend some time outside and see how it changes my mood completely! Glad you loved the word– I do too!

  3. This is great Laura, and, the term is new to me. However, the connection to being outside, in nature, is not knew to me. I agree with you about the heat of Florida. It’s difficult to walk in it, but, I just do shorter walks, more frequently. I used to go to the gazebo at the lake here, to practice yoga on occasion, have not in a while. I do need to get my mace outside my apartment, this article has inspired me to write that down on my calendar. I am missing my walks at Oxbow, maybe soon. I read Thoraeu, Whitman, Emerson as a teenager and their writing of nature always felt soothing. Thanks so much for this essay, it has inspired me to work through the heat,

    1. Thanks, Jann– there is definitely something really magical and, as you say, soothing about being in nature. Staying hydrated and taking more frequent breaks here helps me to work through it, but I really do love using the mace outside! The gazebo by the lake sounds pretty magical, too.

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