Should We All Be Spending More Time Playing In The Dirt?

By Christie Johnson

Did you know the key to being happy could lie in the pile of mulch in your back garden? 

The idea of getting on your hands and knees in the dirt to find happiness might be as clear as mud for some of you. For those nature lovers and green fingers out there, I imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seats – I know I was when I first heard the news! 

Before the cynics in the back pooh-pooh the notion completely, just hear me out, or rather the incredible science that backs up this deliciously dirty discovery. 

This article explores humanity’s deep-seated connection with the natural world, the many phenomenal reasons why a regular dose of vitamin “N” is fundamental to our health and well-being, and how our increasingly solitary lifestyles are perhaps threatening a vital part of the human experience.

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Why Does Dirt Make You Happy? 

Gardening is fun; it’s therapeutic; it’s good exercise; you might even go as far as saying it’s a necessary weekly, or even daily, ritual. In the UK, gardening is a tradition that is as old as dirt (if you will excuse the pun!), reaching as far back as the Roman Conquest. With approximately 87% of British households owning a garden, it appears the significance of maintaining a space for nature to flourish (thankfully) hasn’t been lost to history. 

So why do human beings naturally gravitate towards green space? Sure, gardens are a nice thing to look at. Hell, they can even smell nice too. But perhaps the need to be close to nature, and get our hands dirty, is a result of something far more intuitive and primal. 

Dr. Mary O’Brien, an oncologist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, first discovered the link between dirt and happiness when performing an experimental treatment on lung cancer patients. After injecting them with M. vaccae (pronounced emm vah-kay), a microbe found in soil, she discovered something quite astonishing. Not only did patients display fewer cancer symptoms, but their overall quality of life and emotional well-being also improved significantly. 

Building on O’Brien’s incredible findings, Dr. Chris Lowry of Bristol University and colleagues set out to explore the link between mood disorders, such as depression, and a healthy immune system by treating mice with M.vaccae. After observing the brain activity and behavioral changes of the mice, the team found that M.vaccae activated a group of neurons that produce serotonin, the brain chemical responsible for regulating our mood and essentially making us feel happier. 

So could M.vaccae be used as an antidepressant? Maybe one day. But for now, Lowry’s study is crucial in understanding the connection between our physical and mental health, with findings leaving the team “wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.” 

Hands holding soil
Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

Our “Old Friends”, the Microbes 

If getting dirty in nature makes us feel better, then perhaps most of us have been living our lives in completely the wrong way.  

The modern world exudes an insular and ultra-sterile way of living where nature, including dirt, is this faraway thing we should only admire from a safe distance, or do our very best to avoid.

Dirtiness is something to be eradicated while obsessive cleanliness is celebrated. You only have to walk down the cleaning aisle in your local supermarket to see the array of spray bottles and soaps all promising to do one thing: kill germs. 

But scientists are now discovering there is such a thing as being too clean. In an effort to protect ourselves from the bacteria that cause nasty illnesses, we might just be depriving our bodies of a wealth of “friendly” microbes which are integral to our health and well-being. 

Our dependency on the microscopic world was brought to light by Graham Rook’s “old friends” hypothesis which suggests human beings and certain microbes have evolved in tandem since our inception – think hunter-gatherer and farming communities! Some microbes are believed to be essential to a healthy immune system; however, our overly hygienic and modern lifestyles are providing us with little opportunity to form bonds with these vital organisms. 

So, a healthy human has a vibrant microscopic community of microbes, or microbiome, living inside us. Trillions of microbes consisting of thousands of different species live on our skin, in our gut, nose, and mouth. A thriving microbiome helps us fight off viruses and regulates our moods – to name but a few extraordinary examples! 

A bustling network of microbes exists outside of our bodies too, with an array of microorganisms found in natural areas like rivers, plants, and of course, dirt. A growing body of scientific research is discovering that a regular dose of nature, and the microbes that reside there, is an essential ingredient to maintaining a healthy body and mind. 

Not only does spending time in the dirt boost our mood, but it can protect our physical health too. Research has shown that children growing up in rural areas with frequent exposure to the microbes in farm soil are less likely to develop allergies and asthma when compared to city-dwelling youngsters. 

And it doesn’t just end with dirt. Another closely related phenomenon is the health benefits of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku. First emerging in Japan in the 1980s, forest bathing is seen to be a mindful practice involving immersing oneself viscerally in their natural surroundings. Researchers like Dr. Qing Li and colleagues discovered the profound physiological and psychological benefits of being exposed to nature in this way. Trees release a chemical called phytoncides, or wood essential oils, a volatile organic compound which, if absorbed by humans, encourages the production of natural killer (NK) cells that help fight off dangerous diseases such as cancer. 

Although not exactly rolling around in the dirt, forest bathing is another powerful example of our deeply primal need to be regularly exposed to nature’s microscopic world. 

A gardener with pruning shears clipping lavender
Photo by Kaur Kristjan on Unsplash

The Dangers of an Indoor Society 

Our relationship with nature is disconnected. It’s bordering on dysfunctional. 

By 2050, 68% of the human population will be living in urban areas. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors. We have never been so removed from our natural surroundings. 

Our solitary and nature-deprived lifestyle has insidiously crept into our collective experience, perhaps threatening the very essence of the human experience. And this is especially true for children. 

Disappearing green spaces, the lure of digital technology, and fears of traffic and strangers have resulted in children becoming increasingly removed from the natural world. In fact, three-quarters of children spend less time outside than prisoners do, according to a 2016 study and wildlife charity RSPB discovered 4 out of 5 children are not connected to their natural surroundings. 

The consequences? Journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in 2005 to describe a nonmedical term for how a child’s lack of exposure to nature can fundamentally change their behavior. From childhood obesity to attention deficit disorder, Louv warns the dangers of a child’s isolation from the natural world are becoming ever more palpable. 

Even words that describe the countryside and nature are being removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary with replacement words such as “blog” and “chatroom” indicative of the increasingly sedentary and insular present-day childhood experience. 

You only have to read the many studies showing the health benefits of children spending time in nature to realise our relationship with Mother Earth is something worth fighting for. Research by the University of Derby in 2013 found that children who are regularly exposed to nature show higher English attainment, improved health, life satisfaction, and pro-environmental and pro-nature behaviors. What’s more, a recent study by University College London and the Wildlife Trust discovered children who spent time outdoors not only displayed improvements in their well-being and health but also conveyed their advocacy for protecting wildlife and enthusiasm for lowering their environmental footprint. 

Playing In The Dirt: A girl walking through the woods and wildflowers
Photo by Ladyfern Photos on Unsplash

Final Thoughts on Nature, Dirt, and Wellbeing 

For centuries human beings have enjoyed the wonders of nature. From taking a stroll in your local park to spending the afternoon gardening, we’ve perhaps always had a subtle sense of how nature can improve our health and well-being. 

Even so, none of us were quite prepared for what recent scientific studies have discovered about the innate and powerful relationship our bodies and minds have cultivated with the natural world. 

Something as unassuming as dirt is actually a gateway to a phenomenal world brimming with microscopic organisms that not only make us feel happier but can also help fight disease. 

The concerning reality is most of us live a lifestyle that propagates a solitary existence away from nature, where our deep human need for natural connection has been relentlessly ignored for far too long.  

If nothing else, these scientific findings are calling us to listen; to recover what we have lost; to invite nature back so we can reconnect with something that is so essential to our human experience. 

Perhaps not all the answers do lie outside and in the dirt, but it’s definitely not a bad place to start!