Noticing Nature

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I’d like you take a moment to think about an experience you’ve had, one which has fostered feelings of wonder and joy. For me, watching a bee colony at work, observing the ebb and flow of ocean waves, or enjoying the beauty of a tree swaying in the breeze can fill me with a sense of awe, astonishment and a deep comfort and connectedness that, to me, feels like happiness.

The Travel Mindset

The feeling I just described seems easier to tune into when I am exploring new places. Call it a “travel mindset,” if you will, but there is something about new territory and novel surroundings that can heighten your awareness (and your openness) so that you become more dialed in and attuned to the experiences you encounter.

There is very interesting process going on here. If you are like most people, when you are traveling you will probably have an expanded capacity to be observant. Similarly, you will also very likely exhibit a greater tolerance for discomfort when you are away from home.

Observing Nature Leads to Happiness?

This increased power of observation and improved tolerance for discomfort are a shift that occurs only in your head, but the altered perspective can help to enhance your happiness and sense of well-being. At first glance, it may seem like I’m doing a bit of arm-chair philosophizing here, but a recent study backs up the idea that the very act of noticing and paying attention to nature not only helps to decrease anxiety and depression, but also boosts contentment.

These findings (appropriately enough) were published in the Journal of Positive Psychology by a group of researchers called the Happy Team (so named because these scientists investigate ways of promoting healthy emotional states).

The study was led by Dr. Holli-Anne Passmore from the University of British Columbia in Canada. Her team compared two groups (and a third group was used as a control). Essentially, the two study groups were asked to complete the following tasks:

  • The first group was instructed to photograph natural objects (like trees) and record their emotional states during this activity.
  • The second group was asked to photograph man-made objects and record their emotional states while they snapped photos.

The subjects were instructed not to go out of their way when accomplishing their assignments. They were only to snap photos as they went about their normal everyday activities. As Dr. Passmore explains, “This [study] wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness. This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”

Dr. Passmore’s team found that the group that photographed natural objects reported considerably higher levels of contentment and satisfaction than those that photographed man-made objects. In summing up the results Dr. Passmore said, “The difference in participants’ well-being — their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than participants in the group noticing how human-built objects made them feel…”

Takeaway

This study confirms my own personal observations and supports the idea that “noticing nature” is a prescription worth taking. Taking the time to notice nature can improve both your mental health and your physical well-being. Dr. Passmore’s research builds on past studies, which have shown that connecting with your natural surroundings can boost your mood and even add years to your life.

You don’t necessarily have to go off the beaten path in some exotic land (though that can be good for you, too). Simply paying greater attention to curbside flowers, a majestic cloud as it unfurls in the afternoon, or a multi-colored sunset can evoke feelings of wonder, which can trigger a cascade of chemical compounds that promote and support positive emotional states.

There is a beauty, harmony, and intelligence in nature, which has the capacity to inspire awe and wonder. These feelings of astonishment can spark a biochemical symphony in your own body, too, consisting of stress-busting hormones, feel-good neurotransmitters, and immune-boosting compounds. With this thought in mind, I’d like you to take two trees and call me in the morning.

Be well,

Dr. Josh

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