From psychotherapy we know that mental health and well-being are elevated when people experience some kind of engagement or connection with the larger world, outside of themselves. That is, when you extend yourself, your perceptions, beyond focusing so much on your own self — your needs, worries, regrets or desires for the future.
A new empirical study finds evidence supporting what we see clinically. It found that virtually any form of immersion in the natural world, outside of your internal world, heightens your overall well-being and well as more positive engagement with the larger human community.
The research, described here, is from the University of British Columbia. It highlights, in my view, an essential dimension of what is truly “mental health” – the realm beyond healing and managing conflicts and dysfunctions. It’s the capacity to move “outside” of yourself and thereby Increase and broaden your mental and emotional perspectives. That’s the realm that grows from meditation – the mindfulness state of being in the present moment. It’s a kind of buffer zone between being pulled by emotions and thoughts about the past, or anticipations about the future. There, you’re simply present. Conscious, in the moment; observing the flow of mental and emotional activity; but not being pulled into it. That conscious “now” allows for greater inner calm, clearer judgment, and enables more focused, creative responses to everyday life.
This study that examined the effect of immersion in nature upon the overall sense of well-being of participants, was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, and divided people into three different groups. For one group, immersion in nature was defined as taking time to engage in some form of connection with the natural world. That included not just walking in nature, but, as described in this summary, it included anything not human-built: a houseplant, a dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk, birds, or sun through a window.
“This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” said lead author Holli-Anne Passmore. “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.”
One of the other groups focused on their self-observations regarding human-made objects, and the third did neither. Passmore pointed out that the difference in the participants’ well-being —their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than that of participants in the group which noticed how only human-built objects made them feel. It was also higher than the control group, which did neither.