You might have read the story last week about the enterprising Japanese commuter who sold his seat on one of Tokyo’s notoriously crowded trains. Every morning he begins his journey from the outer metropolitan area of the world’s largest city, meaning he is one of the very lucky ones frequently guaranteed a seat.
As we know, the world’s population is increasingly urban. Overpopulation and inadequate infrastructure make for horrible commutes, associated with increased risk of health problems, including anxiety, depression and psychosis.
If you’re commuting in Finland you get off very lightly.
Daily life in Tokyo looks like these photographs from Michael Wolf’s compression series but it’s a global phenomenon, so it’s not surprising to hear that last year Apple named mental wellness and mindfulness apps the number 1 global app trend.
These poor blighters in Japan are some of the prime targets of an industry which has far outstripped global economic growth in recent years, now said to be worth $4.2 trillion.
A lot has been written about McMindfulness and the false idea it spreads that you can manage the life as you currently live it if only you search inside to centre yourself in the present. Imagine being ‘present’ on a Tokyo commute, perhaps mulling over what it feels like to chew mindfully on a raisin.
The truth is that instead of staring into an app looking for calm as you’re rammed headfirst into a sweat-soaked carriage you’d be better trying to identify the external factors that make life so difficult and try to change your environment.
Of course, that’s a big challenge if your livelihood depends on your commute, but at least the Japanese have forest bathing whose practioners recognise the mental health costs of cheek-to-jowl urban living and a culture of long working hours.
Forest bathing, which is really about being passive in nature – or going to a forest with the fixed purpose of wandering without a fixed purpose – has been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to help the immune system.
And there are plenty of other actions that provide significant health benefits more inexpensively than a monthly wellness app subscription and much less screen time.
Research reported last week in the Guardian suggests that spending as little as 2 hours a week in nature has enormous health benefits, shown in how likely people are to report good health and life satisfaction.
Of those who spent little or no time in nature, a quarter reported poor health and almost half said they were not satisfied with their life. In contrast, just one-seventh of those who spent at least two hours in nature said their health was poor, while a third were not satisfied with their life.
Significantly, for people with limited access to nature nearby, the research found that it did not matter whether the two hours were spent in an urban park, beach, or woodlands.
Another piece of research from King’s College London published last year in BioScience showed that seeing trees, the sky and hearing birdsong in cities provided immediate and time-lasting mental wellbeing benefits.
We’re a country of well over half a million summer residences and surrounded by trees but it’s easy to get sucked in by your phone and forget the beautiful natural sights that surround us. Instead of planting my face into a mindfulness app or another self-mastery article I should spend more time looking out the window, or just go outside and walk with no fixed purpose.