Nature As Healer

Science has found a lot of proof in recent years of what our Ancestors knew all along: Nature is our greatest healer.

“There is mounting evidence, from dozens and dozens of researchers, that nature has benefits for both physical and psychological human well­being,” says Lisa Nisbet, PhD, a psychologist at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, who studies connectedness to nature. “You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.”

Random Beauty: Sunset Over The Golden Gate Bridge

What’s more, just looking at images of nature can provide some benefit. A 2009 study compared outcomes of people who walked outside in either natural or urban settings with those of people who watched videos of those settings. They found that any exposure to nature—in person or via video—led to improvements in attention, positive emotions and the ability to reflect on a life problem. Of course, the effects were stronger among those who actually spent time outside, but images were beneficial.

This is the basis behind the photos you see across this site of “Grautuitous Cuteness” and “Random Beauty.”

More recent studies have found that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress.

It’s About Being Connected

Naturally (no pun intended!) science-types want to quantify exactly how much time spent outdoors is required to get the benefits. After all, what is the point if they can’t reduce their findings to a formula such as x hours = y% happiness? But it seems to be more important to feel connected to nature than to spend a prescribed amount of time outside/ looking at pretty pictures.

Random Beauty: Cross Creek, Fayetteville NC

In a 2019 meta-analysis, Alison Pritchard, PhD, ABPP, at the University of Derby in England, and colleagues found that people who feel more connected to nature have greater eudaimonic well-being—a type of contentment that goes beyond just feeling good and includes having meaningful purpose in life.

John M. Zelenski and Elizabeth K. Nesbit published a pair of studies in 2012 that compared nature-connection with other forms of connection such as friendships or connections to country. They found that while social connection was beneficial, being connected to nature was a significant, distinct predictor of overall happiness and mental health.  “People who feel that their self-concept is intertwined with nature report being a bit happier,” says Zelenski. “Nature connectedness isn’t the biggest predictor of happiness, but [the association between the two] is quite consistent.”

A Balm For Covid-Related Isolation

Lake Junaluska, NC at Dusk

A couple years before we all had to quarantine ourselves, a UK study looked at how connecting to nature impacted the effects of lonliness and social isolation.  Social isolation is typically associated with worse subjective well-being. But the researchers found that when people with low social connectedness had high levels of nearby nature, they reported high levels of well­being.  “There are people who don’t necessarily want to spend their time with others, but they feel connected to the natural environment, and that can enhance their well-being,” one researcher said.

If your nature-spot includes some sort of water feature, such as a stream, lake, or ocean coastline, it can be even more beneficial. And I’m sure none of us will be surprised to discover that the more remote and wild a location the more benefits it has for mental health. This goes for images and videos as well –  people who watched nature videos with a diverse mix of flora and fauna reported lower anxiety, more vitality and better mood than those who watched videos featuring less biodiverse landscapes.

Sounds like just the thing for trauma fighters!

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