I want you to close your eyes (well, read the rest of this paragraph first) and—for about a minute—think of the following words: sanctuary, tranquility, and retreat. What images come to mind? What thoughts, emotions, and sensations do you experience? Where might one find such things? (OK, close your eyes and give it a shot.)
The Transcendent Nature of Nature
Raise your hand if your vision included scenes of nature: trees, sunshine, the beach, running water. I’m willing to bet a lot of you have your hands raised. To be fair, the title of this article may have primed you. But there is something incredibly powerful about the natural world and its ability to provide us with a sense of psychological well-being. Because today marks the 40th annual celebration of Earth Day in the United States, it seems a good opportunity to tie together a few positive psychology themes with Mother Nature.
The field of ecopsychology—founded on the belief that the natural world can have great impact on mental health since the natural world is where the modern human mind evolved—was formally founded in the early 90’s by history professor Theodore Roszak. But a tradition of nature-based spirituality extends to the origins of human civilizations. From pagan sun gods to Native American rain dances, nearly all cultures across the world and across history have revered nature.
Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan explain that nature experiences can have profound effects on an individual’s psychology. The researchers examined the effectiveness of one-to-two week wilderness programs by interviewing participants. Participants reported feelings of peace, wholeness and the ability to think more clearly. Further research studied the effect of employees having trees, bushes, or other natural scenes visible from their desks.
Those with nature-inspired views were less likely to report job frustrations and more likely to report enthusiasm for their job than those less fortunate.
Losing the Natural World
In the modern era of Netflix, Twitter, and ever-growing urban centralization, how many of us really connect with nature any more? I distinctly remember spending much of my childhood running through fields, catching insects, and climbing trees. I was lucky to have had a pre-internet youth and parents who limited my interest in, albeit archaic, videogames. But these days I’m lucky if I come within 50 feet of an actual tree most days, and even then, it’s usually through the glass of my car’s windshield.
Author Richard Louv warns of a modern epidemic of nature-deficit disorder in his book, The Last Child in the Woods. He views the experience of growing up in and around natural environments as vital to psychological well-being in adult life. But between technological distractions and a diminishing role of the outdoors in modern culture, he worries that we may be losing a part of ourselves as we lose our connection to nature. He writes:
Reducing that deficit—healing the broken bond between our young and nature—is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes—our daily lives.
“The case is clear, but how can positive psychology help?” you ask. I believe positive psychology can inform our connection to nature in two significant ways. First, it provides great interventions to increase our connection to nature and thereby increase our happiness. Second, in order to enjoy those benefits and in honor of Earth Day, we must learn to be good stewards of the environment and take care of the natural world around us so future generations may reap the same benefits.
I invite you to add to these lists in the comments. I also encourage you to incorporate at least one of the suggestions from each list into your routine.
How a Healthy Planet Can Help Your Happiness
- Savor a walk through the woods. Savoring can intensify and elongate positive experiences.
- Exercise outdoors. Research by the Kaplans has shown that exercisers who walk outside in pleasant environments tend to walk longer than those who walk inside or around their neighborhoods.
- Enjoy peak experiences. Nature-based excursions such as climbing a mountain or swimming in the ocean are great catalysts for peak experiences.
- Appreciate the beauty of nature. Keeping a gratitude journal has been shown to increase subjective well-being. Why not focus a journal on nature-based gratitude and rekindle your character strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence at the same time.
- Get into flow. Outdoor activities can be wonderful opportunities for flow and can include rock climbing, pruning a garden, or painting a sunset.
How You Can Help Promote a Healthy Planet
- Exercise self-regulation. Find ways to drive less, recycle more, and use less electricity by slowly building your self-regulatory muscles. Start in ways that are easiest for you and gently add more difficult ones.
- Flaunt self-efficacy and optimism. Write to your government representative to express your support for a new initiative and encourage the effort.
- Practice mindfulness. Be thoughtful about your environmental footprint for an entire part of your daily routine. For instance, choose to be mindful in the morning and take shorter showers, re-use towels, and bike or take a bus to work.
- Build meaning through social connectedness. Help a friend plant a tree or gather a group of neighbors to begin a campaign for local community gardens.
- Favor experience over comfort. Paul Rozin’s research suggests that happiness is increased more by positive experiences than by creature comforts, which we adapt to quickly. Crack your windows open to let a breeze in rather than cranking up the A/C or volunteer to clean up a local river instead of spending the afternoon in front of a TV.
Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Louv, R. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Roszak, T. (1992). The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology New York: Simon & Schuster.
Rozin, P. (1999). Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure. In E. Kahneman, E. Diener and N. Schwartz (eds) (1999). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp.3-25). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.