A walk in the woods – the rise of “forest bathing”

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In recent times there has been increasing media attention on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku  or “foresting bathing.” Going for a walk in a forest – which is what forest bathing basically is – is something I have always both enjoyed and found restorative.  And anything that encourages people to connect with the environment around them is to be welcomed. And there is a body of research showing health benefits (though it strikes me that studies with 12 subjects are rather small to be making too many generalisations, and obviously forest bathing is something which a plausible placebo for comparison is tricky to devise!)

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More generally I am a little wary of using health grounds alone as the reason to engage with the natural world. This is not to say this is an invalid approach, or one which has not got its place in a therapeutic toolkit. I would not use the much-abused term “medicalisation” in this case, but rather perhaps “therapeutisation” – and relate it not so much to a need to describe more and more human phenomena in clinical terms (which is what medicalisation is) but to a need to justify pleasurable and meaningful activity by an appeal to health and to “the evidence.”

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For one thing, evidence can change, and one wonders if larger studies would find the same benefit (and as is clear from the first paragraph, while I am very well disposed to forest bathing as an activity, I would be slightly sceptical of some the full evidential weight of the studies being cited). It is well recognised that therapies which initially show great success in specific groups do not necessarily scale to larger groups, and sometime hype can damage their reputation unfairly.

“Forest bathing”, in the West at least, seems part of a larger trend towards casting activities as mindfulness practices – we see this with adult focused colouring books and other practices which people essentially enjoy and find provides an alternative focus to the information-saturated world of devices. I am professionally and personally very well disposed to this and other approaches to mental health that emphasise meaningful activity. I would also strongly feel that activities are most meaningful, most enjoyable and (ironically given the point I am making) most beneficial when they are pursued for their own sake or in pursuit of their own objectives and (to use a very overused word) values.

Photos are from Glen Wood, near Kilsheelan (and just across the Suir in Co Waterford)

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