Places that Heal

The late environmental psychologist Anita Olds created a process many years ago that I find stunning in its implications. Anita specialized in the design of environments for health care, and she often led audiences through this simple exercise:


  • Recall a time when you were injured, physically or emotionally. Now think of where you were at the time.
  • Recall a time when you felt physically or emotionally healed. Where were you at that time?

Anita then invited participants to share just the environments of the injuring experience and the healing experience. Over and over, the vast majority of injuring experiences happened indoors, and the majority of healing experiences happened outdoors.

How can this be? What does it tell us?

I became entranced by this exercise, and I altered it slightly for a broader audience:

  • Recall a time when you felt really bad—unwell, injured, unhappy, seriously out of sorts. Where were you at that time?
  • Now recall a time when you felt really good—deeply alive, healed, truly at one with your own nature. Where were you?

I’ve done this exercise with dozens of audiences, all over the U.S., and the results are consistent: a show of hands reveals that most (about 70-80%) of the “bad” experiences were indoors, while the great majority of the “good” experiences were outdoors.

Given that most Americans today spend over 90% of their time indoors, you might think that about 90% of both good and bad experiences would occur indoors—or maybe that somewhat more of the good experiences would occur outdoors. But far from it.

It would take more precision and analysis to plumb the depths of this phenomenon, but here’s what I take away from it: For whatever reasons, the outdoors is vastly more healing and energizing to people than the indoors—where we spend most of our lives.

What’s wrong with this picture? Put loosely, why are we spending most of our time in places that don’t feel utterly fabulous to us? And how can we alter our living environments so that we’re more likely to feel deeply alive in them?

Well, that’s the subject of this whole endeavor called Come Home to Nature. So stay tuned!

And please contribute your own experiences and observations: what feels best—and worst—to you, indoors or out?

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  1. Wow…what an interesting exercise! I like your expansion…really interesting to think about.

    Love your key question: Why are we spending most of our time in places that don’t feel utterly fabulous to us?

    Will share on the Natural World Connections Facebook Group! Thanks Carol!

    • carolvenolia says:

      Thank you for responding, Carol! It’s great to see what stood out for you in this post. Indeed, why ARE we spending most of our time in places that don’t feel fabulous? Actually, never mind why; let’s just change that pattern!

  2. Carol,

    Why is the obvious sometimes so difficult for our conscious mind to grasp? This blog post helps put things in perspective, and does so in perhaps the most effective way. Socrates knew this method well. Sometimes it is questions that allow our minds to open more than any answers we are are spoon fed.

    Thank you for helping me (us) realize the obvious… we are nature-starved and our psyche and bodies feel the effects long before our conscious minds catch up.

    I’m opening my windows this moment – and now listening to the wind massage the canopy of happy tree… I need to get outside!

    Thank you,

    • carolvenolia says:

      Hi Alex,
      I think the obvious is difficult to grasp because we get into habits. And when those habits aren’t nourishing, we tend to get into a dysfunctional downspiral: we don’t feel good, we forget that we CAN feel good, we don’t even think about how simple it can be to feel better.
      There’s also our cultural obsession with DOING and producing–a subject that can and will fill a whole other blog post. Fortunately, once we get past our fears of being unproductive, we can celebrate the fact that living naturally actually makes us more productive, healthier, etc.
      Hooray for you for opening your windows, tuning in to your senses, and getting outside! You’re a natural.

  3. Carol, thanks for making me think about this.

    A physical therapist had me walk on the beach to heal a foot injury. Alternating walking on cool / wet sand with walking on warm / dry sand promotes circulation. It helped a ton, and got me exercising again. Not to mention the emotional benefits of being in nature.

    Later, I had several major joint injuries that I feared would become chronic. And because of the pain, my movements became dysfunctional, leading to additional joint injuries. This time, my PT had me walk on soft, warm sand to activate my propioceptors. My movements became harmonious and functional again. No more pain!

    Feldenkrais movement therapy helped too. Feldenkrais was a physicist who studied how animals move, and used the knowledge to help humans. His is now one of the leading movement therapies.

  4. :Years ago I had a boyfriend living with me who was making me incredibly unhappy. He didn’t really love me. I woke up one morning and couldn’t stand to be around him, so went to the back of my 47 acres to be away from him. I lay on the ground among the trees next to my lake, so sad and unhappy and unloved. I awoke to a misty rain gently falling on me. I could feel the grassy earth beneath me and the loving gentle rain falling on me, like a caress, comforting me and letting me know that I was loved by God. Tears fell from my eyes as I felt this incredible love coming from Mother Earth and the Great Spirit. I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I have other stories similar……

    • Hi Lori,
      Thank you for sharing that poignant moment. I’ve had many experiences like that, too. I especially recall when, after the psychological devastation of 9/11 (I was on the West Coast), my then-boyfriend and I needed a healing experience and spent the weekend at a lake surrounded by green hills. As I drifted on the lake, gazing up at the placid green hills and feeling the sunshine, I gradually felt Mother Nature healing my body and soul. At night we sat on the dock and looked up at the stars, putting all our sorrows and trauma into a greater perspective.

      Keep on feeling it!

  5. Hi Carol,

    Today I heard your interview with Debra Lynn Dadd. It was all too short, and I was left wanting. Later, I saw an excerpt of your book about how to bring nature inside, and thought, “wow…what beautiful photography and theory.” What an inspiration you are! I’m glad Debra interviewed you or I wouldn’t have known about you. I also admire you for your humble approach to those who may not have the financial resources to accomplish big ideas. I think it’s important too, to create an aesthetic in environmental design, regardless of one’s own limited capacity and resources. Thank you for sharing your awesome skills and creativity to the public. Thank you.

    • Hi John,
      Welcome to the Come Home to Nature world! I’m touched by your comments, and delighted to meet another soul who resonates with this approach. Debra Lynn Dadd plans to have me back on her show, so maybe that will give you more of what you’re looking for. Don’t forget to sign on to my list (upper right of every page on this site) to stay informed of new developments.

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