If you feel more relaxed and recharged after a day at the beach or a hike in the mountains, there is a psychological reason for that. Interacting with the natural world is good not only for our bodies but for our minds and spirits too.
What ecopsychology teaches us about why we need regular interaction with the natural world.
What we know intuitively—that interacting with the great outdoors is good for us—is now supported by a robust body of research that provides evidence that contact with nature lowers stress, reduces ruminations, and lessens anxiousness. Interacting with nature also fosters creativity, produces states of calm, restores attention fatigue, and can affect pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors.
One of the areas of psychology that has contributed to our understanding of the impacts of direct contact with nature is ecopsychology. This field of study focuses on understanding the human-nature relationship. A core assumption of ecopsychology is that the outer world and our inner world are intimately connected. After all, we are nature! Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we need regular interaction with the natural world in order to thrive as individuals and as a species.
Yet we are spending less time in the natural world than ever before. More than 70% of the United States population lives in urban centers, and we’re spending more time than ever focused on screens for work, school, entertainment, and socializing. A 2019 Nielsen report showed that the average adult spends nearly 12 hours per day interacting with some form of media. Studies show that kids are staring at screens for far too long each day on average and spending only four to seven minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play.
During the lockdown of the COVID pandemic, we were even more removed from nature and from one another. Health professionals are concerned about a growing epidemic of loneliness—not only among older adults but among young people as well. Recent studies point to loneliness as a major health risk, rivaling smoking. Some researchers suggest that our loneliness may also be rooted in “species loneliness“—our disconnection from other life on the planet.
One daily habit that helps me fight “species loneliness.”
There are many ways we can develop our connectedness with nature, including activities that stimulate our senses and foster a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. We experience our deep connectedness when we’re hiking a mountain trail, walking the water’s edge at the beach, or witnessing a sunset over a beautiful lake.
But we can also experience nature connectedness closer to home and in our everyday life—if we’re open to it. In my new book, Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect With the Power of Nature—and Yourself, I suggest prompts and activities that deepen the experience of nature by emphasizing the sensory-rich world around us and by fostering intentional interactions with elements of the natural world in and around our homes.
One of my favorite activities in the book asks the reader to make it a daily habit to look for your “Nature Gift of the Day.” It might be an unexpected rainbow, the melodious song of a wren outside your window, or the glistening of the first snowfall in winter. When we are intentional about noticing nature around us, we experience so much more!
As a species, humans evolved embedded within the natural world, and our bodies and minds are wired to interact with it. We need nature connectedness to feel fully alive. That’s why I suggest getting outside and actively noticing (and keeping track of) the gifts that nature gives us daily.