Biophilia – Why We Need Nature To Thrive

Drawn from the Greek words ‘bio’ and ‘philia’ – meaning a love of life or living things – biophilia refers to the innate need for humans to be close to nature. 

The term was coined by German-born American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm to explain the way humans instinctively seek connections with nature, and later explored by Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, who suggested that our desire to be close to nature is biological – part of our DNA. 

We might have evolved from our hunter-gatherer ancestors but humans are hardwired to be at one with the natural world. We intuitively turn to nature when we are feeling overwhelmed, or need to gather our thoughts.

Nature has a healing effect, easing our stress and anxiety and helping us to relax and to think more clearly. It is vital to our mental and emotional wellbeing.

Modern Science Says Nature Is Good For Us

Nature doesn’t just make us feel good emotionally; there is a growing body of research that links it to a host of physical and cognitive benefits.

Hospital patients recover from surgery more quickly when exposed to nature, while green spaces near schools are linked to improved cognitive development in children. Even a 50-minute walk down a tree-lined street has been found to reduce activity in the brain associated with anxiety and rumination.

In a compelling study that took place at the University of East Anglia in the UK, researchers examining the health data of more than 290 million people found that those who lived near or spent time in green spaces not only felt less stressed out; they were less likely to suffer from high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes, and were at less risk of dying prematurely. 

While in Japan, ground-breaking research on forest bathing has linked time spent in nature to enhanced immunity against debilitating diseases like cancer.

Embracing Nature Through Biophilic Design

While modern science tells us that nature is integral to our health, the unfortunate reality is that many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time indoors in artificial light or air-conditioning, or in urban areas devoid of trees and greenery. 

So how can we embrace nature in our homes, in our offices and in the areas we live? 

The answer lies in biophilic design. 

Once a niche trend, biophilic design is something of an international movement now, embraced by architects and designers around the world and even appearing on Pinterest’s 2022 trend report. The basic principle is integrating nature into the spaces we inhabit and creating a sense of harmony, or a synergy with the natural world. 

72h cabin, glass cabin in Dalsland, Sweden. Photo Credits: Copenhagen Wilderness/
For a true nature immersion, guests can reserve the 72 Hour Cabin in the stunning region of Dalsland, Sweden. © Copenhagen Wilderness/

Biophilic design can be as simple as incorporating plants and living walls, or materials and textures that mimic the natural world into our interiors, right through to letting nature dictate the structural orientation of buildings, or even the landscape of a city. 

Think the city of Singapore – the poster child for biophilic architecture – which has transformed the built environment with lush, plant-covered buildings that support biodiversity. 

How To Boost Your Wellbeing Through Biophilic Design

While propagating a living wall in the bedroom might not be feasible for most, buying a few house plants is one of the easiest ways to experiment with biophilic design. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a peace lily, an olive tree or potted basil, studies show that houseplants can reduce physiological and psychological stress – even more if you “interact” with them.  

Natural light is another key element of biophilic design. 

A biophilic tweak could be as simple as turning your desk around to face a window with a view. Or, if you’re lucky to live somewhere with clean air and windows or doors that open out to a garden, then go ahead and open them – especially in the morning. 

Photon exposure in the early hours of the day can balance the body’s circadian rhythm – the body's internal clock – helping you feel more in tune with the world outside.

if you're working from home, a simple biophilic design method is to turn your desk to face a window. © Rockledge Residence/Aria Design  

When considering biophilia, both in design and as a human need, it’s important to consider reconnecting with nature through all the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.

Aside from visual stimuli, soothing natural soundscapes, such as rain, birdsong, or the flow of water is linked to improved cognitive performance. Aquariums, water features, or even listening to simulated nature soundscapes on a Spotify playlist can make any space seem more welcoming, therapeutic and relaxing. 

The use of natural fibres, textures and materials like wood, linen or natural wool is another sensory approach that invites tactile restoration, while on the taste and scent front, herbal tea and essential oils can also harness a connection with nature.

Sipping on aromatic tisanes (think rosemary, lemongrass, or mint), or diffusing a mood-lifting citrus like lime peel, sweet orange or grapefruit, or perhaps a forest-bathing, woodsy scent like frankincense, cypress or pine, are simple yet impactful ways to transform your state of mind, and create an atmosphere of your choosing. 

Above all, biophilic design is a reminder that however disconnected we are from the natural world, it is possible to restore that harmony and in doing so, restore our own health and wellbeing. 


IMAGE: Waiheke House by Cheshire Architects