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Watching nature movies may actually boost your mood

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For so many of us, 2020 has been the year of staying home. 

As the United States surpasses 5 million coronavirus cases, social distancing efforts have never been more essential. It’s a reality that’s left plenty of us, yours truly included, stuck inside for months on end with no finish line in sight. 

For some, that’s inspired new hobbies, DIY projects, explorations of the digital space, and other fulfilling changes. But for others, yearning for the outside has become a persistent irritation — a constant reminder that things aren’t how we’d like them to be, so we might as well go back to watching Netflix for another night…afternoon…morning…OK, all three. (How many times have you watched your favorite show this year?) 

And though some parks and public spaces across the country are opening (and then closing, and then reopening again), the outside remains inaccessible for plenty of groups. Whether you live in a packed city, face heightened health risks, or simply don’t feel up to managing ever-changing public restrictions, being unable to go outside worry-free is a reality many of us will be facing for the foreseeable future. So when getting into nature isn’t an option, how can you still get your healthy dose of fun in the sun? 

Turns out, the answer might be watching more Netflix. Really.

“I’m reluctant to recommend TV,” environmental psychologist Dr. Ming Kuo says with a laugh over the phone. “I’d much prefer people get outside. That always, always preferable… But if you’re saying it’s working for you, that’s the best we can hope for.” 

Allow me to explain. The importance of green spaces in our lives is rarely discussed beyond lecture halls and city planning committees. And yet, it’s a component of mental and physical well-being we intuitively know needs looking after. I, for one, felt the fatigue of inside time early in the pandemic.

Turns out, the answer might be watching more Netflix. Really.

The positive health effects of time outside are well-documented. Numerous suggest living in an area with lots of greenery can decrease your risks for obesity, cardiovascular illness, and associated conditions, as well as reduce neighborhood crime. What’s more, we regularly rely upon the outdoors to keep societal peace and psychological calm. There’s a reason we use “taking a walk” as a go-to social deescalation strategy.

In a 2019 interview for NPR’s podcast, Kuo likened people living in cities to zebras living in cages: “I think we are, to some extent, housing Homo sapiens with that same functional view that as long as they have shelter, water, food, safety, that’s pretty good.” Although Kuo didn’t know it at the time, she was describing roughly the state some of us are living in now. We’ve got essential services, four walls, and little scenery to speak of. 

Remember birds?

Remember birds?

Kuo was making a broader point about the the way we structure human habitats, but the similarities to our present circumstances caught my attention. (That I was listening to this particular podcast episode at this particular moment in time was a coincidence.) As Kuo explained an experiment that supported her argument, I thought about how what she was describing might improve my life.

I was feeling better day by day, and my gut told me the entertainment I was selecting had a lot to do with it.

“It turns out that if we take people and put them in a lab, and we just show them pictures of nature, and we watch what happens to their blood pressure and their nervous system activity, we can see them become more calm,” Kuo detailed in the podcast. “So just the visual is enough.”

Fascinated by the idea that screens could actually benefit my health for a change, I set about re-testing Kuo’s experiment with Netflix’s animal docuseries Our Planet. 

As spinner dolphins, desert elephants, and emperor penguins danced across my screen, I felt an overwhelming wave of tranquility. Of course, nature documentaries are always calming. The “measurable positive effects” Kuo had promised came in droves, but I couldn’t be certain it was from watching nature-centric entertainment, and not David Attenborough’s iconically dulcet narration. 

I required more data. So I watched Wild. Then 127 Hours. And then Holes, Cast Away, Lord of the Rings, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last of the Mohicans, Return of the Jedi, The Sound of Music, Arrival, The Shallows — all films with relatively little in common, aside from sweeping shots of gorgeous nature settings. I kept these films on my living room TV for days on end, giving them occasional glances as I worked, cooked, played with my cat, and did whatever else needed doing. When a particularly pretty scene came up, I turned on the sound and enjoyed a deep, calming breath before turning back to my indoor antics.

Then, I played hours of nature-set video games like God of War, Firewatch, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I even re-read A Walk in the Woods and Into Thin Air, which didn’t meet any of Kuo’s visual criteria but hey, I was on a roll. I was feeling better day by day, and my gut told me the entertainment I was selecting had a lot to do with it.

YMMV on whether 'Midsommar' actually calms you down.

YMMV on whether ‘Midsommar’ actually calms you down.

Months into my daily ritual, I got Kuo on the phone and presented her with my findings. She was a bit baffled at first, but as I explained to her what my personal experience had been, the possibilities piqued her interest. According to Kuo, the effects I was experiencing could be paying dividends on both my mental and physical health.

“Nature images are among the fastest stimuli which bring us back to a [physiological] baseline.”

“If you stress people out in the lab, scientists have learned that one of the things that best calms people down and puts them in a recovered state is the touch of or being near someone who they trust,” she begins. “Unfortunately, in the pandemic, a lot of our comforting persons are able to be physically near us. But what’s great is that nature images are among the fastest stimuli which bring us back to a [physiological] baseline. When we’re in sympathetic fight-or-flight mode, or even better what we call tend-and-befriend mode, nature images are one of the fastest ways to recover.”

The reasons behind this instant calming effect aren’t entirely clear, though Kuo and others have plenty of guesses. But what is apparent is that following this transition from panic to calm, humans are able to think more clearly as well as manage their body’s functioning more holistically. Kuo describes it as “that ‘aaaahhh’ feeling” — a recovery process that replenishes from all sides as resources we are storing up to fight off a perceived threat are redistributed throughout the body.

“If your body is constantly fighting a low level of stress, then your body is going to do certain things,” she says. “It’s going to get you to eat as much high energy food as possible, and it’s not going to put those resources into longterm investments because basically it’s thinking, ‘I’m going to have to fight off a tiger’ or whatever. There is imminent danger so I have to save my energy for that.

“But when you put your body into tend-and-befriend mode, where it feels like the world is safe and your body says, ‘OK, this situation is good and we have some extra resources’ then it will start putting those to good use.” 

Dr. Kuo, if 'Animal Crossing' doesn't count, then I would prefer not to know.

Dr. Kuo, if ‘Animal Crossing’ doesn’t count, then I would prefer not to know.

As that energy is redirected, we can see boosts in mood, boosts in the immune system, and a whole array of other positive effects. Whether screens help or hinder that process, Kuo can’t be sure. She’d definitely prefer you get out in nature if possible, but if like me, you just can’t? Well, this is probably better nothing. 

“That’s the best sign that we can ask for that all these other things are working.”

“If it’s working, if it’s getting you to a state where your body is going to put resources into other functioning, you will feel it. So the fact that you noticed that feeling, that you were watching these things and thinking, ‘I’m doing a lot better,’ that’s the best sign that we can ask for that all these other things are working.”

When I ask how this might interact with longer term illnesses, namely chronic depression and anxiety, Kuo is particularly hesitant to make any conclusions. Still, she says there’s validity in the idea that prescribing nature-centric TV time could be an unconventional coping mechanism worth exploring. “It’s very promising that if you get nature doses via TV, you could actually make a dent in your depression or anxiety disorder. But I can’t say that would work for sure because we haven’t done the science.”

Across genres and mediums, natural settings have become an essential through-line in my free-time routine. I haven’t been keeping track of my biodata to prove that it’s an effective coping mechanism. But anecdotally? I do feel worlds better. 

“If they tell me that it works, I will study it.”

Yes, certain selections are more calming than others (Midsommar was a weird choice), but for the most part, even dreaming of the outside has helped with my stir-craziness. 

What’s more, a lot of nature-set narratives center on brave people overcoming insurmountable obstacles. It’s a reminder not only that there is an outside ripe for the exploring, but also that I will be allowed back in it sooner than I think. Hell, if Leo DiCaprio can fight off a bear and hunt down the men who left him for dead in The Revenant, I can stay inside my house and watch another movie.

No one has to tell you existing right now isn’t easy. As we all get a better handle on which outdoor spaces are safest and what kinds of physical activities come with minimal risk, our innate nature needs will be met more fully. But for now, if you’re feeling like the walls are closing in around you and the front door is permanently shut, cue up something with trees and water. 

“If your readers notice that, if they try it and they notice it, I would love for them to let me know,” Kuo says with a laugh. “If they tell me that it works, I will study it.”

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