Forest Bathing

Photo by Gustav Gullstrand on Unsplash

Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” or taking in the atmosphere of the forest, and refers to soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health. The term was first coined in 1982 but, today, millions of Japanese walk along forty-eight “forest therapy” trails, to get their dose of what I guess could be labeled “outdoorphins.”

Fans of shinrin-yoku explain that it differs from hiking because it is about taking everything in and stimulating all our senses, and because it focuses on the therapeutic senses.

Professor Qing Li at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo has studied the effect of shinrin-yoku and found that this practice reduces the levels of cortisol in the blood and boosts the immune system. But forest bathing may not be good only for our physical health. Researchers from the University of Essex have explored how being active in a natural setting affects our mood. Looking at ten different UK studies involving more than 1,200 people, the researchers found that taking part in activities like country walks, sailing, and gardening all had a positive effect on the mood and self-esteem of the participants. Overall, evidence is building that time spent in the natural world benefits human health.

Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People, p. 150.

I grew up with a forest right on the other side of my back fence, and spent my early adolescence walking the trails. Today I encourage my students to practice creation awareness as a spiritual discipline, to go outside and to look, listen, smell, touch, and taste, to experience that “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, based in Denmark. When we spend time outdoors, “nature has a positive effect on our health and happiness.” To try this out, Wiking suggests:

Find and explore a forest. Take it slowly and forget about what would make a nice Instagram picture. Instead, listen to the wind in the leaves, watch the sun bounce off the branches, take a deep breath, and see what smells you can detect. Try to visit the same spot several times a year, so you can appreciate how it changes over the seasons. Say hi to the first day of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Go alone or invite people to join you.

We have Cameron Park and nearby Mother Neff State Park. My attempted visit to the Sam Houston National Forest was rained out, but I’ll go back. There is a trail there I want to walk.

Leave your earbuds in the car. Put your phone away. Don’t worry about taking pictures. Open your eyes. Glean from Wiking’s wisdom. Then go one step further. I look at the natural world, and then look beyond it. I see the forest as creation, and then reflect on the Creator.

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Paul was writing about food and drink. But the same can apply to the forest. Take a walk. Soak it in.

The Midlife Satisfaction Slump

I’m reading Jonathan Rauch’s latest work The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.

Rauch writes about the dip of midlife, known popularly as a kind of “crisis,” but more often experienced as a sense of deep satisfaction, a feeling that life hasn’t measured up to what was expected. In youth, we expect to achieve, and most work hard, earn status, maybe start a family. We hit some rocks, experience some disappointments, change jobs or jump careers. And then suddenly we find that we have the stuff, we have friends, we have status, and we think, “Is this it?”

If you’ve thought that, that’s normal. And if you haven’t thought that, you will. The midlife slump, or the feelings of dissatisfaction, are natural. They are part of life.

Rauch writes:

To an extent, the evidence confirms what we all know: the middle years of adult life are often the most restless, stressed, and unhappy. Of course, midlife stress can come from the burdens of demanding jobs and jammed schedules and teenaged kids and aging parents. But here is where the evidence and the conventional wisdom part ways: the midlife dip in happiness shows up even after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and down of life. In fact, it shows up especially after factoring out the stresses and strains and ups and downs of life.

It turns out these feelings are part of a natural transition, a movement from the drive to achieve to the desire to connect. Rauch writes that “the post-midlife upturn is no mere transient change in mood: it is a change in our values and sources of satisfaction, a change in who we are.”

How do we change? We see that life is fleeting and our stuff isn’t forever. That even if we’ve achieved great things, we’ve also been tossed against rocky shoals and survived. Many of us learn, and learn well, that our social ties are what count the most, our families and friends and communities. And we’ve gained enough wisdom and perspective to offer guidance and help to those who are younger, who are still on the way.

As a Christian, I know that life is a gift and old age is a blessing. This is a countercultural message, especially considering that I live in the modern West, where the goal of many is to get out of life alive. Rauch may be right in that the social science demonstrates conclusively that we do change as we age, and that the midlife slump and successive uptick is a natural transition. If this is true, this knowledge can help us to navigate this period more successfully. Complemented by Christian virtue and formation, this knowledge can also help young adults within congregations transition well as they age in terms of their role within communities of faith, offering social support and hard won wisdom to those of emerging generations.

At a previous ministry stop I had a friend named Bob Wright. He was in his eighties. He befriended me. He didn’t have to. But he did. He took me to lunch, and made sure I had cookies to take home to my kids. He was an old cattleman. And even though we didn’t see eye to eye on everything, we were brothers in Christ. He offered wisdom and historical perspective, and he said that I helped him to see the church, and our times, from a different point of view. Every moment I spent with Bob was a gift.

Churches are beginning to recognize that age-group affinity groups have their shortcomings. They’ve responded by trying to connect generations, by setting up mentoring relationships between young and old. Usually, the impetus is placed on the older generations. But in healthy communities, this kind of seeking should go both ways. These kinds of relationships are vessels for wisdom, available to both older and younger congregants. Older members have gifts to offer to younger generations, and vice-versa, accessible through the ties of friendship.

I don’t know if I will find life better after 50. In twelve years, I guess I’ll see. But it is preferable to think there is more to look forward to, riches that only come with the accrual of age, and the opportunity to assess those riches, to make connections, and to serve.