In 2017, when I was in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Kichwa people introduces me to the concept of SUMAK KAWSAY.
It literally means “good living“ or “healthy living”.
In their cosmovision, the territory or land including Other than Human beings are an integral part of a community’s healthy living. In other words, all beings in Nature, including rivers and mountains are part of an equilibrium of connection with Human world.
Humans cannot enjoy a life of Sumak Kawsay if they disregard the harmony of their relationship with the Other than Human world.
Once you disrupt this harmony, you create a dis-connection with Nature, and a dis-ease will inevitably follow.
In our advanced societies, we consider human health from reductionist standpoint.
Physicians look at the organ or physiological system that is affected by a dis-ease and treat with the best targeted technology available, usually drugs.
We explain dis-ease by physiopathology.
Although the negative impact of stress on our immune system has been irrefutably demonstrated, we do not connect physical disease to mental health as the mind / body connection is not taken into account in western medicine. To avoid the issue, we refer to disease as “multi-factorial”.
I spent my life working with inventors of cutting edge technologies. I was venture capitalist, a biotech founder & CEO, a strategy consultant / investment banker, all in the name of the improvement of human health. I was fortunate and feel grateful to have had the chance to turn this passion into real advances for human health. In the process, I made a very comfortable living to say the least. If I sum up the value of all the financing, partnership and M&A deals I was involved in, I reach a couple of dozens of billions of dollars.
Yet, when I look at a snapshot of where we stand today from a public health standpoint, I see that we are failing miserably as a society in a number of areas:
- Mental dis-ease is the health epidemic of the 21st century, with skyrocketing rates of depression and burnout.
Chronic diseases, with cardio-metabolic syndrome and diabetes leading the way, will result in a regression of life expectancy in the US for the first time in 300 years.
It is no surprise, that urbanization has uprooted us from our Home, Nature.
And since 70% of humans are projected to live in cities by 2050, we can only expect dis-connection and dis-ease to accelerate.
As the Kichwa have known for thousands of years, dis-connection cannot lead to “healthy living”.
But science has now caught up and is starting to turn on its head some of western medicine’s sacrosanct principles:
- Being in Nature not only prevents dis-ease, but also restores mental and physiological health.
- The mechanism of action is through our senses that recognize stimuli from Nature. These stimuli are still hardwired in our DNA.
- Each sense has its own beneficial stimuli, with beneficial effects on the body as well as the mind.
- Some of the most beneficial effects are observed when we see specific shapes in Nature called Fractals. It changes our brain waves to alpha, and this leads to some of the most spectacular physiological health benefits.
- In one famous study, people with a view only on Nature from their hospital room recovered faster that those who did not!
So what does this mean?
- One of the most powerful benefits cannot be linked to a “molecule” in Nature. It is a shape that makes us feel a lost connection with our Home. Furthermore, it happens through our senses, not through a “functional” organ or system. And the physiological benefits happen through a reconfiguration of our brain’s waves. That’s called mind-body connection.
But there is one connection missing in this scientific storytelling: connection to others.
Actually beyond its restorative effects on our health, Nature has an immediate beneficial impact on relationships and group cohesion: one group multisensorial Nature immersion can improve self-confidence, sense of belonging, feeling of equality, group trust, depth of listening, level of respect and level of empathy.
By reconnecting with Nature, our Home, we reconnect with ourselves, others, and ultimately our Purpose. And this leads to true Health.
In April 2017, a Harvard longitudinal study followed more than 700 people for over 80 years across generations and found a strong correlation between flourishing lives or happiness and their feeling of connection as represented by the quality of their relationships with family, friends and community.
The Harvard Gazette’s headline was: “Health and medicine: Good genes are nice, but joy is better”.
In parallel, a meta analysis comprising 8523 people (US, Canada, Europe, Asia) concluded by Capaldi et al (2014) published in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that “regardless of gender or age, the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness appears to be positive and significant. In general, individuals who are more connected to nature tend to be happier.”
If we manage to put reductionism aside for a moment, we see that there is a massive body of evidence out there that demonstrates that Connection is fundamental to our health.
And if we put anthropocentricity aside, we have to recognize that the first connection, our birthright connection, between Humans and Nature, has to be rediscovered if we want to stand a chance for genuine Health.
While we wait for western medicine to evolve from a reductionist mindset like physics did almost a century ago, what can we do to help our concept of health catch up to this recent body of research?
Well we have the concept of (disease) prevention that looks like a low-hanging fruit to integrate these findings on connection.
Today, prevention has three pillars:
While we cannot add Happiness, because we all want it but cannot control it as an outcome in our life, nor Harmonious relationships, for the same reason, we can certainly add spending time in Nature.
As a conclusion, the fact that the body of evidence on the health benefits of Nature go beyond simple correlation and show significant cause and effect, with detailed mechanisms of action described through our senses warrants adding “Spending time in Nature” as a key pillar of disease Prevention in public health policies across the globe.
Japan and South Korea have led the way for more than 30 years.
In Canada, BC Parks Foundation just launched the PaRx initiative which is a platform to support healthcare professionals (physicians, psychologists, etc…) who want to prescribe spending time in Nature.
I see initiative this as a step beyond integrating Nature as the fourth pillar of prevention because it can go as far as a serving as “supportive” Therapy.
More specifically, PaRx will propose Forest Therapy walks with certified guides (also called Shinrin Yoku).
Research on Shinrin Yoku has demonstrated the most potent effect on health restoration, both mental and physiological.