Spring is around the corner. That’s good news for positive psychologists.
Lately I have been reading Transcendentalist writers, including Henry David Thoreau, who preached the importance of people communing with nature. In 1845, Thoreau went to live for two years, two months and two days in the woods near Walden Pond. When asked why, he responded, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”Although Thoreau led a fairly solitary life for those three months, he did open himself up to the grandeur of the world, and surely he LIVED.
Connecting to Natural Vitality
Reading the Transcendentalists, and feeling excited for soon-blooming trees, I was reminded of a presentation at the Sixth International Positive Psychology Summit. John Zelenkski of Carleton University spoke about his research on “Nature Relatedness.” “Nature Relatedness” (NR) is a scale he and his colleagues designed to measure a person’s “cognitive, emotional and experiential connection to nature.”Not surprisingly, environmentalists have high NR scores. NR also “predicts positive emotions, a greater sense of vitality, and purpose in life.”
The idea of NR is compelling in light of research on Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition where people’s moods are changed by the circadian rhythms and shorter daylight hours of winter. People can start to feel very blue during long, cold winter months, amidst the sparse white snow and grey tree branches, barren of green leaves.
I am also reminded of Jon Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis. He writes about the emotions of awe and elevation—that they trigger physiological changes in the para-sympathetic nervous system that make us feel calm and connected. How often have you seen a sunset that takes your breath away? Nature stirs our not only our psychology, but also our biology, making us even more aware of how we are connected to the world around us.
Examined together, this mix of research is not very surprising. As living beings, we are connected to our physical world in manifold ways. It makes sense that seasons and the gifts of nature should affect our moods and our sense of well-being. Thoreau was no dummy. Sitting under a tree by Walden pond, tending a garden, climbing a mountain—all these things connect us with our world and with ourselves.
The Natural World as Positive Intervention
But what does this mean for positive psychologists? I wonder, is the country mouse “happier” than the city mouse? Can gardening improve the quality of our lives and make us live longer? We know that “other people matter,” but how often does the field of positive psychology provoke us to think, “our planet matters?” Since 1877, programs such as the Fresh Air Fund have been taking inner-city children to the country. Do these programs have the potential to integrate positive psychology into a greater sense of responsibility for the environment?
As coaching practitioners, do we acknowledge the power of the natural world and its impact on our clients? How often would you say to a client–stuck on an iceberg belief, or in a downward thinking spiral –“That’s it! You need to go outside and sit under a shady tree for twenty minutes right now!” Is there a chance that the delights of sea, sand, flora and fauna, could lift our moods as effectively as other positive interventions?
Perhaps in our busy world, it seems crazy or decadent to tell a client to chill out on the beach for a while. To that I respond: Henry David Thoreau was smarter than us. He wrote, “If a man walks in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer. But if he spends his days as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making the earth bald before her time, he is deemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”
We are living in a world where detached “speculators” not only cut down trees, but they cut down savings accounts— to the detriment of many. Perhaps one of the best ways positive psychology can combat these ill effects is to promote some “loafing.” My advice: Go find a friend and take a nice long walk in the woods.
The author would like to thank Jeff Cramer, Curator of Collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, for editing this article for accuracy.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Thoreau, H.D. (1854, 2005). Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Yale University Press.
Zelenski, J. (2007) Sixth international positive psychology summit. Washington: Gallup Press.
Images: More Walden Pond by Adam Pieniazek, It’s a beautiful day, don’t let it get away by Neloqua
Aren – you might be interested in this research that shows that walking in the bush (oz term for forest) increases cognitive capability. See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=368
Also the Japanese have a practice called “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the atmosphere of the forest) which increases HRV (a measure of parasympathetic activity). See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=452
I’m not sure if awe and elevation are necessary to activate calming. I suspect most people just find the forest soothing. It’s interesting how we underplay these low energy positive emotions.