Ryan Whisnant, MS, MBA, CAPP, is an organizational strategy consultant and coach, and principal at Coalescent Services. Drawing on expertise in sustainable development, nature systems, and positive psychology, he works with institutional and individual clients in creating strategy and transformation for sustainable competitive advantage. Full bio. His articles are here.
I’ve been an outdoor enthusiast since my childhood, which I spent running off into the small patch of woods behind my house in the suburban Midwest. While I may not have been able to articulate it then, the benefits of being connected to nature, what I’ll call nature connection, have always been an important part of my life.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
As a student in the 2013 Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) program, I was surprised to find scant evidence in the positive psychology literature of the role that being connected to nature plays in flourishing. Yet throughout the program, hints of nature were everywhere: a reference, an anecdote, an image. So what does the research say about the role that nature connection plays in our well-being?
First, it’s important to recognize that our brain has evolved in a natural setting. Modern mechanized society and even agriculture are relatively recent additions to human experience. According to environmental psychologists, exposure to nature offers a number of benefits, many documented in the references I’ve listed below:
- Better health
- Reduced stress
- Faster recovery from illness and injury
- Less aggression and violence
- Improved memory and attention span
- Higher test scores and graduation rates
- More creativity
Richard Louv even coined the term Vitamin N to describe how the mind/body/nature connection can enhance physical and mental health.
Looking through the lens of Seligman’s PERMA model, there are a number of mechanisms for nature connection to support flourishing. Here’s a sampling:
- Savoring: Nature provides endless opportunities for savoring, from the sweet taste of a fresh-picked wild blueberry to the beauty of a sunset to the melody of a songbird.
- Gratitude: Elements of the natural world provide perhaps some of the most irreducible things to be grateful for: that sip of pure water when we’re thirsty, the feeling of sun on our face on a cold day, or that first harvest from a bountiful backyard garden.
- Mindfulness: Nature constantly invites us into a state of present awareness, engaging our senses with the wind against our cheek, the call of a bird on our backyard feeder, or the sound of rustling in the bushes in bear country!
- Curiosity: According to Kashdan, curiosity plays an important role in our well-being. Native cultures had a knowledge that modern culture has largely forgotten: tracking. More than just animal footprints on the ground, everything leaves tracks. A tracking mind follows the trail as the story of the tracks reveals itself, asking questions such as “Who left these tracks? What was it doing? Where is it now?”
- Attention Restoration: Baumeister has demonstrated the numerous benefits of self-regulation and the impact of ego depletion on our ability to self-regulate. According to research from Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan, natural settings provide some of the most significant restorative benefits.
- High Quality Connections: Dutton cites the importance of high quality connections for well-being. Nature offers a powerful vehicle for learning about connection and community through the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the cultivation of empathy for other creatures.
- Play: The natural world provides endless opportunities for people (of any age) to move and play together. All who had the opportunity to build forts or play make-believe outdoors as a kid know how this builds strong, positive bonds.
- Awe and transcendence: This is perhaps the most easily recalled experience most people have of nature connection, certainly so for anyone who has experienced the sense of wonder at seeing a spectacular park, witnessed a large wild animal up close, or simply taken in a beautiful sunset.
- Grit: High quality, outdoor experiences provide fertile ground for building levels of self-efficacy and grit. Nowhere have I seen this more than in youth wilderness programs, where children learn to push through experiences of relative discomfort from cold, wet, or boredom, to arrive at wonderful moments of learning and accomplishment.
- Self-efficacy: Nothing beats the look of satisfaction and confidence on the face of someone who just started their first bow drill fire (without matches or a lighter). Realizing they have the ability to produce something as elemental as fire and the power to take care of themselves and others creates a genuine experience of self-efficacy.
Where can we find nature?
As it turns out, we don’t need to find a far off wild place to reap the benefits of nature connection. According to the Kaplans, research shows that most humans prefer not dense nature, but semi-open scenes with a parkland feel and a hint of mystery around the corner. In other words, it’s possible to find beneficial connections to nature right in our own backyards.I found one such place when I was living outside of Seattle. For over two years, I went to this sit spot virtually every day, sometimes for only ten minutes. It was an area roughly 200 paces across, where I explored, ate wild blackberries in the sun, played in the snow, had warblers perch within arm’s reach, even watched coyotes rest not 15 feet away. I learned more in this small patch of nature than anywhere else in my life.
With all of its benefits, we cannot take nature connection for granted. According to the World Health Organization, by 2050 seven out of ten people on the planet will live in an urban area. What are the implications for our well-being?
We need positive psychology researchers to build on the findings of environmental psychologists. We need practitioners to use nature as an easy, free, and effective toolkit for supercharging positive psychology practice. Remembering where we come from as humans, it’s my belief that ultimately nature gives life to everything that supports flourishing. If we learn to nurture our relationship with the natural world, perhaps we’ll find it supports us in ways we never thought possible.
Louv, Richard (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. Algonquin Books.
Young, J., McGown, E. & Haas, E. (2010). Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Owlink Media.
Young, J. (2001). Exploring Natural Mystery: Kamana One. Owlink Media.
Brown, Tom Jr. (1986) The Tracker. Berkley Books.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2012). PERMA. A YouTube video.
Baumeister, R. & Tierny, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books.
Berman, M., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. (2008). The Cognitive Beneﬁts of Interacting With Nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
Frumkin, H. (2001). Beyond Toxicity: Human Health and the Natural Environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Abstract.
Herzog, T., Herbert, R., Kaplan, R., Crooks, C. (2000). Cultural and developmental
comparisons of landscape perceptions and preferences. Environment and Behavior, 32, 323-346. Abstract.
Kaplan, R., Kaplan, S. (1998). With People in Mind: Design And Management Of Everyday Nature. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Kashdan, T., Steger, M. (2007). Curiosity and pathways to well-being and meaning in life: Traits, states, and everyday behaviors. Department of Psychology, George Mason University.
Kellert, S. (2005). Nature and childhood development. In S. Kellert (Ed.) Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Island Press.
Kuo, F., Sullivan, W. (2001). Aggression and violence in the inner-city: Impacts of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33: 543–571
Matsuoka, R. (2008). High School Landscapes and Student Performance. University of Michigan.
Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environ Health Prev Med. 15(1): 18–26.
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.
Stephens, J.P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J.E., (2012). High-quality Connections. In K. Cameron & G. Spreitzer (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship (chapter 29, pp. 385-399). Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Tangney, J. P., Baumeister, R. F. & Boone, A. L. (2004). High Self-Control Predicts Good Adjustment, Less Pathology, Better Grades, and Interpersonal Success. Journal of Personality.
Taylor, A., Kuo, F., Sullivan, W. (2001). COPING WITH ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Photo credits via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Wildflower courtesy of linh.ngan
Forest courtesy of fatboyke
Together by the water courtesy of Let Ideas Compete
Bountiful garden courtesy of Distant Hills Gardens
Tracks courtesy of Ryan Whisnant
Grand Canyon courtesy of Al_HikesAZ
My sit spot courtesy of Ryan Whisnant