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A Simple Way to Feel Closer to Others

Limiting self-focus, and increasing a sense of awe.

Key points

  • Being in nature seems to increase one's motivation to care for others.
  • Nature strengthens one's sense of social connection, even when experiencing it alone.
  • Theories for why nature orients people toward greater connection with others include decreased self-focused thought and increased awe.

Mounting evidence shows that exposure to nature—walking through the woods, observing a beautiful sunset, or simply tending to a plant—improves our psychological and physical health. Nature is also good for our social well-being.

Indeed, being in nature seems to orient us toward greater concern for and connection with others. In a study from the University of Rochester, researchers asked participants to watch a slideshow of either natural or human-made environments and then complete a questionnaire assessing their values. Participants who were exposed to nature were more likely to endorse other-related values (connectedness and community), and less likely to endorse self-focused values (fame and wealth), than participants exposed to human-made environments. In a separate study, the same researchers found that participants who were immersed in nature were more generous with their money than other participants. These results suggest that nature can make us less focused on ourselves, and more caring toward others.

Nature also strengthens our sense of social connection, even when we’re experiencing it alone. Researchers from the University of British Columbia instructed college students to be mindful of either the natural or human-built objects they encountered in their everyday lives for two weeks, and to record how these objects made them feel. At the end of the two weeks, students who paid attention to natural objects (like the rosebushes they passed on their way to class) had a stronger sense of connectedness and prosocial orientation than students who paid attention to lifeless objects.

Why does being in nature increase our concern for and perceived connection with others? Researchers are not sure, but there are at least two possibilities.

1. Being in nature decreases self-focused thought.

Researchers from Stanford University asked people to go on a 90-minute walk in a green space overlooking San Francisco Bay, or on the busiest street in Palo Alto, California. Those who walked in the natural environment reported lower levels of rumination compared to those who walked in the urban environment. Also, those who walked in nature showed reduced activity in a part of the brain that’s involved in self-focused thought.

Though more research is needed on the link between rumination and sense of connection, it is possible that “getting out of our head” increases our capacity for other-focused thought and makes our interconnectedness more salient.

2. Being in nature increases our sense of awe, which dissolves our sense of self.

Nature often inspires awe—"the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world”—and research shows that experiencing awe diminishes our sense of self, which can motivate us to be more caring and helpful toward others. In one study of awe, participants were asked to either look up at a grove of towering eucalyptus trees or observe a tall building. Afterward, those who looked at the awe-inspiring trees reported feeling less entitled and self-important than those who looked at the building. Those who experienced awe were also more helpful to a person in need.

Other studies show that experiencing awe can make us feel more connected to other people and to humanity as a whole. As awe researchers have noted, “awe shifts people away from being the center of their own individual worlds, toward a focus on the broader social context and their place within it.”

Bottom line: If you want more connection in your life, connect with nature. Watch the sunrise, walk barefoot in the grass, or stream a nature documentary on Netflix. Doing so may shift your attention away from yourself, and remind you that you’re part of a larger whole.

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Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28), 8567–8572.

Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 537–546.

Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(6), 883–899.

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(10), 1315–1329.