Life

Not Just a Picnic in the Park – How Being in Nature Makes Us Better Humans

I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon’s largest city, with a population of around half a million people (in the 90’s when I was growing up). Though I grew up in the city, I had the advantage of being within two hours of such beauty as awe-inspiring Mount Hood, the glorious Columbia River Gorge, and the blustery Oregon coast, not to mention the dozens of beautiful parks Portland is home to.

Looking back on my childhood and teen years, I have wonderful memories of camping in the woods, visiting family at the coast, and staying with my friend who lived in the country for days (sometimes weeks) at a time. I was blessed to attend Linfield College where I breathed in the gorgeous landscape of the Willamette Valley for four years.

I have been lucky enough to have easy access  to natural settings for pretty much my whole life, though I can remember some instances when I didn’t get the nature-fix I needed to stay energized and invigorated.

For about four years during my childhood I lived on the west side of Portland, minutes from the heart of downtown. There were days when I got home from school and watched TV for hours until it was time for bed. I was tired, lethargic, and didn’t care about school; all I wanted to do was lay in bed and stare at a screen.

Fast forward a few years to my first real job out of college. I absolutely loved my job, but about 2 years in, we moved locations to a building whose offices had no windows. It felt so claustrophobic I sometimes thought I would lose my mind. The work environment became more tense and stressful. On top of that, I was constantly checking my email during off-hours and worried that if I didn’t work overtime, I would be seen as uncommitted.

Fast forward to when my beautiful baby girl was born. Our area experienced the biggest snowstorm it had in about 20 years. The snow was gorgeous, but I was a new stay-at-home mom to a 4-month old and I was going stir crazy not being able to go anywhere. I had major cabin fever. I couldn’t take it any longer. I bundled us up (she was pretty cute with nothing but her little button nose showing) and we headed out on a walk. Instantly, I felt like I could breathe again.

That cold, snowy day did wonders for my perspective on life and really got me thinking. I went from having a pessimistic, claustrophobic, and down right unpleasant disposition, 180 degrees to loving life again. It was all from being outside in nature. I thought, there had to be something to this.

In my research, I’ve been amazed to find that there’s more to it than I ever realized. In fact, I would argue that it’s been scientifically proven that being in nature can make us better humans. Let me prove it to you.

A Sense of Awe

When was the last time you were outside and you just thought, “Wow”?

Seriously, think about it. 

Was it when the leaves on the towering trees in your neighborhood transformed from green to gold?

Was it when you hiked up a steep mountain and saw the splendor of the earth’s landscape below?

Was it the last time you gazed up at the starry night sky?

Researchers define awe as “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your understanding of the world” and they are just now beginning to dive in to what feelings of awe do for us personally and collectively.

Awe is what we feel when we are out experiencing the wonders of the natural world.

We can certainly experience awe in places other than the outdoors, but there is something special about the awe we experience in nature.

Marghanita Laski, a journalist and researcher, found that the most most common triggers for experiencing what she called “transcendental ecstasies” are found in nature. As Psychology Today notes, Laski’s research “revealed that water, mountains, trees, and flowers; dusk, sunrise, sunlight; dramatically bad weather and spring were often a catalyst for feeling ecstatic.”

Being Outside Makes You More Creative 

In 2012, researchers took hikers into the wilderness for three days. At the end of their complete immersion in nature, they found that that hikers had boosted their  creative problem-solving by 50%. The researchers believe that the advantage “comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in the exposure to attention demanding technology…”

Studies have shown that creativity predicts great problem-solving abilities, higher levels of confidence, and even a longer life.

Researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah, sums it up like this, “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask – as most of us do most of the day – and then you set aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity…”

Being in Nature Makes You More Curious

In the book The Nature Fixresearcher Craig Anderson points out that “awe promotes curiosity because we experience things out of our normal frame of reference, things we can’t easily categorize or understand. When we are curious, we are drawn out of ourselves. We seek information from others.” (199)

Curiosity is an underrated phenomenon in our society, but it is essential to the growth of our minds and bodies, and society as a whole. People who are curious could experience greater mental health, higher levels of intelligence, more satisfying social relationships, a happier life, and more meaning in life.

One study at Berkeley found that the more awe participants experienced over a two week period, the greater their curiosity was still weeks later – curiosity begets greater curiosity.

Being in Nature Makes You More Positive, Helpful, and Friendly

Craig Anderson (mentioned above) also believes that that awe promotes curiosity, and curiosity promotes prosocial behavior, which is defined as “positive, helpful, and intended to promote social acceptance and friendship.” He notes that people who are more curious get along better with others.

A study conducted in May 2015 supports Anderson’s belief. The study found that,

awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others. When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically  speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned that awe would trigger tendencies to engage in prosocial behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.”

It’s Going Viral

In addition to encouraging helpful and positive behavior towards our fellow human, nature encourages  us to share it’s beauty with others. Researcher Paul Piff said “When people experience awe they really want to share that experience with other people, suggesting that it has this particularly viral component to it.”

As you might guess in my first year as a stay at home mom, I’ve taken many walks. Hopefully you know that I’m not what my husband would call “hippy dippy”, but I’m constantly amazed by nature’s restorative ability and just couldn’t help sharing it.

 

“At the end of the day…we come out in nature not because the science says it does something to us,

but because of how if makes us feel.”

-David Strayer in The Nature Fix (201)

 

 

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