This week, for the first time in my life, I’ve been working in the city. It has been a new and interesting experience travelling on the train each day and being part of the hustle and bustle.
It has been a real tug-o-war for me to venture into a new job. For the past 6 years I’ve lived and worked in the same suburb and the work life balance was pretty good as a result. But despite this I’ve been feeling like it’s time to try some new things. So here I am…
The area of the city that I’m working in is pretty amazing: easy access to parliament house and the state library, gorgeous historic buildings that probably only law firms and the Royal Australia College of Physicians seem to be able to afford, but the crème de la crème is by far and away the Botanic Gardens.
Most days I jam pack a few hours in, working straight through without a lunch break to fit in some work between dropping off and picking up my son from school, but on Thursdays I work the ‘normal’ 9-5. For one day of the week I get to experience the ‘indulgence’ of a lunch break. This Thursday just gone I spent my lunch break walking in the gardens.
It was the perfect day for it: sunny winter’s day – probably 25 degrees Celsius it was that warm. The gardens really were an oasis in the city, the towers of Macquarie St the only indication that there was a city beyond the lawns and trees. In my last post I referred to a paper I was reading – Central Park: Nature, context, and human wellbeing by Daniel Haybron. It seems to me the Botanic Gardens is Sydney’s Central Park.
Unsurprisingly, Haybron’s central thesis in his paper is that being in nature is good for us. Our health and cognitive functions improve by being in nature, and the more immersive the activity (how long we’re in a natural place and how ‘natural’ the place is) the better the effects on us. Generally being in a park for example has a fairly temporary effect on our wellbeing, whereas a multi-day hike through the wilderness has more lasting effects. Haybron is talking about Biophilia – an idea that there is an instinctive bond between humanity and the natural world.
I’ve felt such a bond. I’ve written about the times I’ve longed to abandon suburbia and live closer the natural world. Sometimes the pull for me is quite strong, and I find myself despairing about living in the rat race of city life, struggling to find the greater meaning to the daily grind.
The thing I found really intriguing about Haybron’s article is his discussion about why people fail to do what is good for them. If nature is so good for us why don’t we crave it (though I would argue sometimes we do – I know I do)? Haybron takes a bit of an evolutionary perspective to it, arguing that as cities developed humans who lived in them got greater exposure to dirt and germs and more immunity to these diseases. Just like humans have developed a craving for fats and sweets because it gave them energy stores to get ahead in life, perhaps in an evolutionary perspective being in nature didn’t give us the cutting edge. But evolutionary traits haven’t always made life good for us. Our love for fat and sweets is fast resulting in obesity and diabetes. What is our failure to connect with nature on a regular basis doing to us?
Haybron argues that human beings are ‘extraordinarily sensitive’ to our environment. In parks people slow down their pace, smile at each other and are nicer. He cites examples of prisoners who look out onto a concrete courtyard vs. those who look out onto farm land and the effect the daily view had on their mental and physical health was clearly evident. Similar examples were found in the wellbeing of residents in social housing that was or was not surrounded by green space. Looking at indigenous cultures can also show us this is a no-brainer. Connection to Country has been proven to help physical and mental health.
Many of us know that exercise is good for us, but we put off putting on the jogging shoes. I suspect many of us aren’t going on bushwalks or visiting places we can reenergise for similar reasons. It all seems too hard – it takes too much energy, or too much organising. But by putting it in the too hard basket we’re actually doing something that is bad for us. Not going is like kicking back a bacon sandwich, downing a few bears and going without exercise for a few weeks. It’s damaging our physical and mental health.
In July when I went on the retreat to Gerroa at the end I stood on the beach and didn’t want to go back to the city – ever. But I did go back. For the moment that’s where my life is. And the reality is we can’t all run off and live in the country. I live in hope that some changes for the better will be forced on society as we have to deal with things like peak oil and climate change. I hope that we will consume less and therefore not have the need to earn so much and be able to work less. That our workplace cultures will change to make part time work accessible and normal at all levels, and that working from home (with better technology to assist us and more trust from our workplaces) can be a reality for many, allowing more rural lifestyles.
It feels like we are in an era when instant gratification is the norm. We earn so we can consume the latest and the greatest. But more and more all I want is time: time with family and friends, time doing meaningful things, time in natural settings.
I think that when you live in the city, if you want to look after your wellbeing, then just like getting on the path to exercise and fitness, you need to actively pursue natural experiences. It’s easy to be lazy in this respect, to let the business of life overtake you.
When I feel this way I’m going to try to think about standing on the beach at Gerroa, remembering walking in Abel Tasman National Park last summer, walking or cross country skiing in Kosciuszko National Park and seeing the beautiful snow gums and the sparkle of the snow in the sunlight, or balancing on a pink granite rock atop Mount Amos looking out over the aqua water – because it’s soul feeding stuff: and I need to remember to get some more of it – and what is more – to teach my kids to do the same.