This isn’t an entirely new idea. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers at the University of Michigan, led by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. Modern life demands what the Kaplans call sustained directed attention on tasks both important and mundane — checking email, working a desk job, finding a parking spot. What leads to resting our brains’ directed-attention function? ‘Soft fascination,’ explains Rachel Kaplan from her plant-filled university office. This is what happens when you watch a butterfly or the sunset or rain. You can’t help but stop multitasking or kvetching. That’s why Kaplan recommends a decidedly nonathletic approach to the outdoors, at least at times.
Forest bathing — simply getting out for a walk in the park or on a hiking trail — is a mix of exercise, escaping little stressors that add up (like chronic Facebooking and proximity to WiFi in general), breathing in fresh air and looking at calming scenes that combine to create a heady and healthy sigh of relief.