At this moment, close your eyes and think about how you feel when you are outdoors. How you feel when the sun warms your skin, the breeze softly blows your hair, the birds sing sweet melodies, the water envelops you in a refreshing embrace. You might be smiling now, or at least sense the tiniest bit of comfort deep within. This is not a feeling by chance, nor is it unique unto you. Our brains are as wild as the flourishing forest, the untamed river, and the never-ending ocean.
As curious beings, it’s not enough for us to simply enjoy the feelings nature brings about in us; we want to know why. Why does nature make our hearts swell with happiness? Why does the wild have a way of putting things into perspective for us? We’re done wondering, it’s time to understand more fully the ways nature can make us better human beings.
It doesn’t take a lengthy camping trip or full day outdoors to feel the effects of nature on our emotions, but quite the opposite. According to a study published by the Journal of Positive Psychology, just 5 minutes spent in nature can improve our mood. In the study, 123 university students were placed in either an outdoor setting (a park on campus) or an indoor setting (a windowless laboratory room), asked to put away all electronic devices, and sit silently for 5 minutes.
Students were asked to score a range of emotions such as comfort, pleasure, gratitude, wonder, and others before and after the 5-minute session. Results showed that students sitting outdoors experienced an increase in all of the previously mentioned emotions after the session, unlike those students in the indoor setting.
We have all experienced the feeling of weightlessness that comes when we are outdoors among the sunshine, bird songs, and gentle breeze. It is not hard to imagine, then, that these things found in nature and much more are able to bring us peace of mind and body. Not only can we receive peace of mind, but also mental strength in relation to dementia.
A study of the effects of nature images and sounds on elders with dementia resulted in improved engagement and reduced disordered behaviors. Overall, this study showed the potential to increase the quality of life of those with Alzheimer’s. Growing evidence has shown that the benefits of nature on those with Alzheimer’s can be grouped into three categories: improved emotional state, improved physical health, and an improved sense of well-being.
There’s something about being immersed in the peace and quiet of nature that help conversation to flow more easily and surpass the surface level we often limit ourselves to. We dive deeper into each other’s thoughts more deeply, laugh more genuinely, and appreciate wholly. In the outdoors, we let our walls down and, without noticing it, are more inviting of others into our space and lives.
According to a 2016 critical review, the existence of a green space in a community can promote social cohesion and group activities, children’s activities in such spaces enhances social development, and much more. When we disconnect from our phones to be fully present, we listen more deeply and enjoy the moments of silence in the sweet company of others.
When we remove our attention and minds from the influence of those around us and the distraction that is technology, our minds are lighter. In nature, free from distractions and the opinions of others, we are able to truly be ourselves. Our attention shifts from that which lies outside of us, to our own ideas and opinions inside of us. While it is important to experience the ideas and opinions of others, it’s important to quiet our surroundings to listen to our own as well.
A 2012 study found that after completing a 4-day backpacking trip, hikers were 47% more able to solve creatively-demanding puzzles than participants in a control group about to embark on the same hike. The study explains this occurrence may occur due to the brain being activated differently when our senses are submersed in natural surroundings versus more urban and industrial settings.
Anyone who has spent quality time outdoors is familiar with the energizing and freeing feelings nature brings about within. The outdoors has a way of bringing us back down to earth and opening our eyes to the reality of our circumstances from a realistic perspective.
Our minds are quick to escalate our thoughts and perceptions to unrealistic levels; a 2010 study published by Social Science and Medicine found that even people surrounded by just a 2-mile radius of green space were less impacted by daily stressors and better able to cope with demanding and stressful situations in their lives. By disengaging ourselves from the influences of the world around us, we can better listen to ourselves.