How does a relationship with our natural environment help develop a life of meaning?
Our relationship with nature and our ecological environment begins in infancy. As we explore ourselves, our community, and the world around us, we begin to develop an understanding of our own ecosystem. We can then develop an understanding of our most authentic and rewarding role within this system. Deep Ecologists call this naturally fitting into an ecological niche, and Positive Psychologists call this a meaningful life purpose.
Using the Wheel of Life Model by Ecopsychologist Bill Plotkin as a guide, this pair of articles outlines the overlap between Ecopsychology and Positive Psychology by identifying 26 developmental tasks one can undertake to simultaneously foster a strong relationship with the natural environment and develop a meaningful sense of purpose in the world. These nature-based developmental tasks fall under the categories of exploration, self-discovery, and expression.
Beginning ExplorationThe preservation of innocence and security is the primary task of infancy, but it can be fostered and developed at any point later in the lifespan, a feature that is true of all developmental tasks. Newborn babies are champions of merely being in the present moment with no pretensions, judgments, or preconceptions. This innocence is easily tainted by an environment that is dangerous or neglectful. Worries about a low likelihood of needs being met often lead to anxiety or ambivalence as noted by attachment theorists like John Bowlby and other prominent developmental psychologists, such as Erikson and Damon. Feeling safe in one’s environment is a necessary prerequisite for maximum success in all subsequent developmental tasks. This is why Abraham Maslow lists physical needs and safety as the foundation of his hierarchy of needs.
Curiosity, wonder, and self-exploration are thwarted by fear and apprehension, but a sense of security and the preservation of innocence can foster a brilliantly curious and inquisitive approach to life. Practicing the art of simply being in your environment without worry is the first task. This skill can be developed by…
- Simply going out to be in a beautiful natural environment with no goals, objectives, or fears. The Japanese call this forest bathing.
- Starting a mindfulness or meditation practice with a focus on the present moment and nothing more.
- Fully engaging in a creative process like painting, sculpting, or music merely for its own sake rather than any accolades or accomplishments.
- Spending time with a baby and letting her take the lead in activities. Apprentice yourself to the infant in a safe, preferably natural, environment.
The next developmental task involves fostering wonder and curiosity. This includes independent investigations, explorations, and explanations of the natural environment around you.These explorations can include wild nature as well as your body and senses, your imagination, and your emotions. Freely exploring the world around you with your already developed sense of security as an aid can lead to a deeper understanding of the cosmic niche you inhabit. It gives you the opportunity to make sense of your experiences in our ecosystem. Martella and Steger call this basic understanding of what is going on in the world around you coherence, and they include it as one of three facets of a truly meaningful life.
In this case we are developing a sense of environmental coherence. Self-directed exploration has even been considered a basic psychological need across the lifespan, often referred to as autonomy by Deci and Ryan in their Self Determination Theory. This drive for awe-inspiring wonder and exploration is present in all children that have not been forced into submission by intense obedience training, and even if this is the case, which it all too often may be, like all other developmental tasks it can continue to be fostered throughout the lifespan.
Practicing the art of curious and inquisitive exploration is the second task. This skill can be developed by…
- Playing out in nature! Build shelters, dig a hole, climb a tree, collect treasures, hide in a cave, ride a mountain bike, skip, jump, leap, and roll around in a pile of leaves.
- Learning what you can about the mountains, rocks, streams, trees, and animals in your area without the use of books or websites. Use nothing more than your physical senses and imagination.
- Gazing deeply into the night sky and allowing yourself to wonder. Bonus points if you use a telescope. Extra bonus points if you create your own constellation story.
- Going to a children’s museum, zoo, or amusement park.
- Playing tag, hide and seek, kickball, or duck duck goose with some playful children between ages 5-10. No goals or measurements, just have fun!
Self-DiscoveryAs humans, one of the most important aspects of our ecosystem is our social environment. We can explore our social landscape with the same curiosity and wonder we used to explore the mountains and trees in the prior developmental tasks. Because humans are so ubiquitous and we so frequently rely on each other for survival, exploring human relationships is a crucial part of understanding our environmental niche. We are designed to be especially compelled to explore this particularly brainy bipedal creature found within our ecosystem, sometimes to a fault leading to anthropocentrism.
This type of exploration can help to build our social coherence- making sense of our experiences with other people. This can be just as vital to a meaningful life as environmental coherence, maybe even more so. Indeed, Deci and Ryan include relatedness as another one of our psychological needs. If we want to feel connected to our environment while living a life of meaning and purpose, we must feel that we belong within a human ecosystem.
Practicing the art of being socially acceptable without sacrificing one’s natural and personally authentic expression is the next task. To accomplish this valuable and complex task you can try…
- Identifying your genuine interests and style, as distinct from what is expected by others, proper, or popular. Which types of art, music, sports, or social activities are your favorite? Why?
- Engaging in new and diverse social roles and relationships. New foods, new jobs, new social groups, new political persuasions, again, with the security, wonder, and self-directed curiosity fostered in the previous developmental tasks.
- Developing conflict resolution skills that allow you to express your ideas, interests, and views, while still remaining socially acceptable. This may include nonviolent communication, active listening, or validating the emotions of yourself and others without diminishing them.
- Becoming comfortable and familiar with your sexuality. Determining your sexual orientation, practicing physical and emotional safety, celebrating the diverse orientations of others, displaying and recognizing interest, and drawing clear boundaries are all crucial aspects of our social ecosystem.
Come back tomorrow for the final 13 actions, going deeper into self-discovery and venturing into expression.
Bowlby, J. (2008). Attachment: Attachment and Loss Volume One. Basic books.
Damon, W., Menon, J., & Cotton Bronk, K. (2003). The development of purpose during adolescence. Applied developmental science, 7(3), 119-128.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182-185.
Erikson, E. H. (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. W. W. Norton.
Lee, J., Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Ohira, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2011). Effect of forest bathing on physiological and psychological responses in young Japanese male subjects. Public health, 125(2), 93-100. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2010.09.005
Martela, F., & Steger, M. F. (2016). The three meanings of meaning in life: Distinguishing coherence, purpose, and significance. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11(5), 531-545. DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1137623
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
Plotkin, B. (2010). Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. New World Library.
Paint smeared child courtesy of Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash