The rainbow connection: Why being in nature makes us feel more in touch with ourselves

There’s nothing quite like connecting with nature to make you feel happier, healthier and more connected with yourself.


 

Sometimes I feel completely, whole-heartedly, acutely alive. In the moment, there’s no anxiety, no insecurity, no desire to be anywhere or do anything else. Just a sense of calm, comfort and contentment. I feel a world away from the otherwise constant worries and pressures of adulting. I’m free. And, inevitably, I’m outdoors.

I’ve felt it on a warm summer night in the countryside, gazing up at a sky full of stars. Walking along a stream to the tune of birds chirping in the trees above. Sitting quietly on a grassy slope and watching the sun come up, or go down. For all the inspirational quotes on social media about being present, all the meditation apps, crowded yoga classes, and the entire burgeoning mindfulness industrial complex, there’s nothing quite like connecting with nature to help you connect with yourself.

I’ve felt it on a warm summer night in the countryside, gazing up at a sky full of stars.
The biophilia hypothesis, popularised by Edward O. Wilson 35 years ago, describes our innate yearning for nature, having lived in close proximity to it for over 99% of our evolutionary history. To survive, our ancestors settled near water and vegetation. So, the theory goes, as we become increasingly urban we surround ourselves with house plants, zen fountains and bird feeders. But these stand-ins are no substitute for the real thing.

A number of studies have shown that being in nature reduces stress, improves creativity, puts you in a better mood, and generally makes you a nicer person to be around. “We are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature,” says David Strayer, a researcher at the University of Utah.

Get out

In Britain, time spent outdoors is helping people with dementia regain their confidence and sense of control. In America, parks are being prescribed to overweight kids and depressed teenagers. Everywhere, people are looking to nature to help them cope with the stresses and strains of modern life.

Since the 1980s, ‘forest bathing‘ has been part of the national health programme in Japan. Not a vigorous hike or a strenuous trek, the aim of a forest bath is simply to wander slowly and quietly under the trees. Research has shown that forest bathing lowers blood pressure, and that the fresh air doesn’t just smell better; it contains chemicals emitted by plants that improve immune system function.

connect nature

Then there’s ‘earthing‘—making direct physical contact with the ground outdoors. It’s been shown to reduce inflammation and cortisol levels, and improve sleep. When was the last time you laid down in the grass to watch the clouds? Sat in the sand and let the waves lap at your feet? Gotten so close up to a rock or a tree trunk that you could escape for a few minutes into its universe of bumps, grooves and tiny creatures?

Many ancient religions revere nature—Buddhism, Animism, Shinto, Jainism. They often remind believers of their connection to the environment, that they’re a part of creation and made of the same stuff as flowers and planets. It’s a way of finding peace in the moment, but also of preserving the future. The more we connect with nature the better we feel, and the more we feel connected to nature the more likely we are to look after it.

When was the last time you laid down in the grass to watch the clouds?
Next weekend, tomorrow morning, this afternoon, right now even, get outdoors. What colours and textures do you see? Close your eyes—what sounds do you hear? How does the air smell and taste? How does the sun, or the breeze, or the rain feel on your skin? Welcome to the present. This is life.

As wondrous and awe-inspiring as it is, part of nature’s beauty is that it requires no special effort or skills to enjoy. It’s there for us on good days and bad. It’s free. And, conveniently, it’s just outside.

 

Follow Daianna on Twitter at @daiannatweets

Photo credit: Simon Matzinger