Imagine yourself on a sandy beach listening to the waves gently landing on the shore, maybe you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin or a refreshing breeze coming off the ocean. Imagine yourself now deep in the forest breathing in the smells of the earth and the fresh air. A bird calls out softly, and you hear the distinct sound of the waterfall you have been hiking towards.
Many of us feel drawn to the natural world, but we do not all enjoy every part of it. For example, was the beach or the forest more appealing to you? Or would you rather spend time somewhere else entirely? Regardless of our personal preferences and opinions, for many of us there is a healing and restorative component to nature that helps ground us. Let us explore these qualities and learn more about how nature can help to calm and center us.
Humans are part of nature. We are, after all, animals. However, our relationships with the natural world can be complicated. In the world of psychology there is a theory that helps us to understand why and how we connect with nature. The biophilia hypothesis (Wilson, 1984) suggests that humans have an innate connection to nature because it has been part of our evolutionary story. Essentially, because we evolved in nature it is important to us on a psychological level.
Since the creation of the biophilia hypothesis many more researchers have explored the human-nature connection to see how contact with nature and experiences in nature can affect us. So far, most studies have found that being in nature and having a strong connection with nature are related to mental wellbeing and happiness (Nisbet et al., 2011). But not everyone enjoys being in nature or having what others consider to be “natural experiences.” So how does this change the way we connect?
Overall, being connected to nature appears to improve our wellbeing, but different people have different preferences and opinions about nature. The beach example in this article might have appealed to some readers, but the forest example might have appealed more to others. So what does the science say about nature preferences?
A recent study found that individuals do have preferences between different types of nature (Lachance, 2020). In the study, participants were placed into two groups. One group had a “green space” experience, a nature experience in a space with trees, grass, and other plants. The other group had a “blue space” experience, a nature experience in a space with a river. The researchers found that both experiences improved the moods of the participants, but their moods were improved more if they were in a group that matched their preference. For example, a participant who preferred water spaces would have more benefits from walking in a blue space.
So being in nature can make us feel better and improve our mood, but it helps more if we like the environment we are in. This means we should try to spend time in natural spots that we like. But if we really do not like being in nature, it is not likely that it will help our mood to spend time outside.
Nature and Mindfulness
We know that being in nature can improve our mood and wellbeing, but it can also provide opportunities for mindfulness. Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1995) is another psychological concept. It suggests that being in nature can help us to rest our minds. Specifically, by spending time in nature or looking at nature we rest our brains. According to the theory, being in nature can help us to refresh our mental energy and improve our ability to concentrate. Like mindfulness activities and exercises, being in nature helps us to create a state of soft fascination where we can focus on something without using too much mental effort. In the same way as focusing on our breathing, we can focus on the feeling of the sun on our face or the smell of new flowers, or the feeling of sand between our toes. Once we are able to focus on these things, our mind can slow down and rest. But what does that mean for our meditation and mindfulness practice?
If mindfulness and being in nature can both help our minds to rest and for us to refresh, should we just go outside instead of meditating? Probably not. We know that being in nature will not be good for everyone. In fact, it could be very stressful for people that have had bad experiences in nature or those who have phobias of different animals or insects. Being in nature can also be stressful in itself. Sometimes when we go to lie down in a hammock we are swarmed by mosquitoes, and this is fun for no one. Fortunately, we do not actually have to go into nature to experience some of its benefits.
A recent study found that viewing nature scenes on screens could improve self-rated mental recovery and mood more than looking at other scenes like cities or buildings (Neale et al., 2021). Other studies have also found that even having a plant in your home or office can provide some of the benefits of nature exposure (Lee et al., 2015).
Nature exposure, looking at nature scenes, and having plants around can improve our wellbeing and mood. They can also help our minds to rest. But they are not replacements for mindfulness practice. Instead, we can see them as ways to enhance our mindfulness. Here are some ideas for bringing nature into your mindfulness practice and bringing mindfulness into your nature time:
- Next time you are in a natural space look around and try to count how many trees there are.
- When you are outside listen and try to identify at least 4 different sounds. If you are in a space with lots of birds, try to identify 3 different bird calls.
- Next time you meditate or practice mindfulness at home, try putting up a picture of a natural scene that you enjoy on a nearby screen.
- Purposefully bring your mindfulness practice outside.
- Next time you have a positive nature experience, sit with that feeling. There is no need to understand or analyze why you feel good, just experience and enjoy it.
Nature connection will not solve all our problems, and it is not an easy alternative to mindfulness practice, but it can lead us to feeling connected and refreshed. Even more, it can be combined with our existing mindfulness practices to make them more effective.
Lachance, D. (2020). What nature is best? Testing the effects of green and blue space on mood and environmental concern [MSc Thesis]. http://digitalcollections.trentu.ca/objects/etd-827
Lee, M., Lee, J., Park, B.-J., & Miyazaki, Y. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, 34(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40101-015-0060-8
Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Murphy, S. A. (2011). Happiness is in our nature: Exploring nature relatedness as a contributor to subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12(2), 303–322. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-010-9197-7
Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press.