I recently read an article titled “Why is Nature So Good for Your Mental Health?” in Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California Berkeley. The article cites a study led by researcher Craig Anderson and colleagues suggesting that nature may make us happier and healthier because it inspires awe—that sense of being in the presence of something greater than ourselves that fills us with wonder.
Have you ever experienced that feeling of awe? My family and I are big fans of our national parks, and we’ve experienced that feeling at every one we’ve visited. Even after days of car tripping across the country punctuated with bouts of annoying family bickering, we nevertheless end our trips happy, refreshed and in a better place than when we left.
Yet it’s good to know, according to the article, that it doesn’t require multi-day nature trips to get the intended “happy” results. In the study, while participants in the first phase increased their well-being dramatically by going on a one-day or four-day river rafting trip, in the second phase, students kept diaries of their ordinary days for two weeks. Analyses of the diaries showed that students who spent time in nature on a given day felt more satisfied with life than those who didn’t. Thanks to this pattern, students who spent more days in nature over the two weeks saw greater improvements in well-being during that time.
“Our findings suggest that you don’t have to do extravagant, extraordinary experiences in nature to feel awe or to get benefits,” says Anderson. “By taking a few minutes to enjoy flowers that are blooming or a sunset in your day-to-day life, you also improve your well-being.”
Have you stopped to smell the flowers today? (The lilacs and lilies of the valley are incredibly fragrant right now!) And when is the last time you watched the sun set? Or rested in the grass and watched the clouds float by or star gazed at night? In our busy lives, we have to make it an intention to get outside and immerse ourselves in nature.
For me, that’s long walks on nature trails and hours on the water in my kayak. It’s then that I can more clearly comprehend that I’m just a little speck on our big planet, and the sun will rise and fall with or without me, and the grass keeps growing, and the wind whips through the trees on its own accord, and the seasons continue to change, and anything that is worrying me or giving me stress is rather insignificant in the big picture of life.
Whether on a kayak or in a national park—or even in my backyard, it’s an amazing feeling to know I am a part of something bigger, part of our great big world, coexisting with the flowers and trees, lakes and rivers and assortment of wildlife.
“Our study illustrates the importance of trying to find moments to enjoy nature and feel in awe of it,” Anderson says. “People need to learn to slow down and make space for that in their lives.”
I agree. Isn’t it time we slow down the spinning hamster wheel of our lives and take a look at the beauty that surrounds us each day? Yes, walk away from that computer, leave work early (or at least on time), put away the iPhone, turn off the television, and get outside today. Notice the color of the sky, the shape of the clouds, the beauty of the setting sun, the fragrant spring flowers. Our natural world is truly awe-inspiring.