- There are mental health benefits to spending time in nature, including soothing loneliness.
- Connection with the natural world can buffer a lack of social connections by inspiring a sense of belonging.
- Seeing oneself in relation to nature and building mindfulness skills can help foster gratitude for it.
- A relationship with the natural world can be shared with others and can inspire pro-environmental behavior.
This past October, as unconscionable acts of violence raged in other parts of the world, I attended an eco-art therapy retreat at Uplands Farm Sanctuary in New York. Like other nature-based interventions, it entailed spending time in green outdoor spaces with intentionality, such as focusing on the positive qualities of the natural world while hiking through a forest.
Research shows that there are mental health benefits to spending time in nature. Nature stimulates the nervous system in a positive way and encourages prosocial behaviors like cooperation. Interestingly, behaviors that help us connect with others, such as smiling and chatting, are associated with similar physiological reactions. Social connection and feeling a connection to nature also both lead to improvements in mood.
As I walked from the parking lot through a meadow, I knew it wasn’t tragic news stories alone that I yearned to escape. My own problems, including family squabbles and work deadlines, also buzzed relentlessly in my mind, even though I realized that these issues paled in comparison to the devastation others were experiencing. Recognizing my lack of gratitude did not help my mood.
To quiet my mental rumblings, I gazed at the canopy of trees bursting with fall colors, carpets of moss, and snaking vines. I thought about how nature is simple and, at the same time, has the essence of chaotic harmony. These qualities convey the message that each one of us is granted a place in the larger ecosystem, quirks and all, an idea that contrasts with the conformity that pervades society.
As a psychologist, I have seen clients who perceive themselves as not fitting in. Often, they struggle with chronic anxiety and trouble building social relationships. While I guide them in specific strategies for enhancing their connectedness with others, ameliorating social isolation can be a long and hard journey. In the process, some have reported feeling at peace when interacting with the natural world in ways as simple as sitting in the backyard and watching falling leaves.
These clinical observations are consistent with memories of nature soothing me at stressful times, such as 14 years ago, when I had temporarily moved from Long Island to upstate New York, away from family and friends, to complete an internship. It took time to make new friends, and during that transition, I found solace in daily morning jogs through a nearby wooded area. Over a decade later, my desire to seek enjoyment through nature was awakened during another trying time, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Working full-time and caring for two young children in quarantine was challenging, but my family and I relished walks through the same park where the eco-therapy retreat was held, as this had been one of the only safe outings at the time.
These experiences and my clinical observations have led me to ponder the extent to which immersing oneself in the natural world can cure loneliness. It turns out that there is some support for this notion in the research literature, such as one study showing that having a connection with nature might buffer the effects of lacking social connectedness. This is not to say that nature should replace social relationships. However, nurturing a connection with the natural world can help you cope through times when meaningful social relationships are less available, whether this be due to external circumstances, inner turmoil, or both.
Feeling connected with nature can also set the stage for experiencing authentic gratitude towards it. One theory suggests that gratitude to nature is associated with seeing oneself as being in relation to nature. Recognizing a relationship with nature allowed me to let go of discomforts like dirt-stained pants and soggy socks. The thinking behind this is that nature accepts me as I am, and therefore, I have greater tolerance to experience it as it is. Just like you might ignore sticky floors at a theater if you enjoy watching a show, you can accept discomfort better when you perceive reciprocity between what nature is giving you at the moment (i.e., peace, aesthetic beauty, and awe) and what you are giving it in return (i.e., acceptance of its quirks).
This process can happen in any setting. One time, I stopped at a restaurant in the middle of a long trip, and the meals were garnished with flowers. The awkwardness of drinking tea sprinkled with dehydrated hibiscus petals quickly dissolved in the context of the emotional warmth these natural touches added to the experience of dining there.
Nature is also replete with material for practicing mindfulness, which can help quiet the internal chaos of worry and rumination. When my mind drifts to painful thoughts, I gently redirect my focus to the hues, textures, shapes, and sounds of the natural world surrounding me.
When social relationships are thorny, nature can provide an emotional boost to soothe loneliness. This can best be accomplished by:
- Appreciating the sense of belonging nature inspires.
- Cultivating gratitude for nature by perceiving reciprocity between yourself and the natural world.
- Using mindfulness skills to focus your attention on the sights and sounds of the natural world.
Connecting with nature can also lead to building social connections when we share such experiences with others. This is something I do regularly nowadays when I hike with my husband and children. In the past, though, I joined a group of other young adults interested in hiking and ended up making long-lasting friendships.
Beyond improving emotional well-being, gratitude for the natural world can motivate people to preserve it through pro-environmental behavior. We are driven to sustain those things that bring us joy and are more likely to feel a sense of obligation toward them as well.
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