(Trail to Columbine Lake, Continental Divide, Grand County, Colorado)
My efforts to simulate the things in Costa Rica that make them the happiest people on Earth according to the Happy Planet Index failed miserably in the U.S., specifically in Colorado. Sunsets go down behind jagged purple foothills long before they’ve had a chance to change colors and create optical illusions of huge orbs sinking into perfectly horizontal planes. And our families here are just different. The nuclear family is the norm, not the extended family that includes aunts and uncles and even best friends. Our relatives live in different states. We cannot get together to celebrate birthdays and graduations very easily much less have huge family meals and outings together.
But Colorado does have other things that are actually proven to make people happy. Even though the US is 27th on the Happy Planet Index, maybe Colorado judged alone would be higher. I say this because, with the exception of Hawaii, Colorado is the only other state to rank in the top 10 healthiest states for eight years in a row since the 2015 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index began measuring well-being. Coloradans have a high sense of well-being according to the index. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are outside walking, biking, hiking and just taking advantage of our beautiful state.
As it turns out, some of the things we do here in Colorado are proven to make people happy. I was resting with my Italian Greyhound in a hammock at 8,800 feet in my backyard, surrounded by about 200 lodgepole pine trees, some wildflowers, and listening to lots of black squirrels scurrying around in the trees, and hummingbirds whizzing by while a slice of sun cut across half my body, warming me. I remember thinking, “This is heaven.” It was not about the hammock. The air just smelled different–earthy, alive. It turns out the air is different. And it does make you happy.
The July 25, 2016, edition of Time magazine reported on a Japanese study begun in the 1980’s of “forest-bathing” or shinrin yoku to reduce stress. One of the studies showed that people who walked in a forest for 40 minutes had greatly reduced cortisol compared to those who walked for 40 minutes in a lab. And cortisol is that substance we do not want building up because it increases our blood pressure and stress.
But the best part of the study found that the forests are magical just like in the faery tales! Okay not really but almost. The trees and plants emit aromatic compounds called phytoncides. When people breath them, they become healthier. They provide protection against cancer, better immunity and lower blood pressure. Best of all, they relieve depression and make people feel happy! The trees are drugging us!
I googled “shinrin yoku” and found a whole U.S. website dedicated to providing guided tours through the woods of less than a mile. I presume these tours are for those who are unable to appreciate the forests on their own or need some guide to say, “Behold, a beautiful tree. Touch it. Smell it.” Bless capitalism.
Alas, I live in the city, not in the mountains. While I can go on hikes on the weekends, I’d like to stay happy all week. My husband suggested walking figure eights around all the trees in the park across the street every day. It sounds silly, but don’t they emit phytoncides, too? I could pretend I’m training my dog while I’m actually being drugged by trees. I understand cannabis sounds easier and it is legal here but I’m looking for more natural highs, like in that corny John Denver song.
Interestingly, my tai chi chen pan ling teacher always teaches in the trees. And he knows a lot of ancient Chinese stuff. I think there is something to this forest bathing. Something that increases our sense of well-being. A lot of Coloradans have found it and they probably do not know why. I think the Happy Planet Index people should separate us from the other states. Then they should compare us to Costa Rica! I bet Colorado would at least make the top 10. Think of all the trees we have.