It seems the age-old advice to stop and smell the roses is deeply rooted in wisdom. A new study suggests that to live a happier and more meaningful life, we should engage mindfully with nature.
According to research undertaken in the UK, the amount of time we spend in nature is not of primary importance to our mental health. What matters more is how we interact with nature, and whether we emotionally connect with nature. It’s quality over quantity.
Over 2,000 people filled out an online questionnaire in 2019, where they were asked to record how much time they generally spend in nature, how often they engage in simple activities involving nature, and how connected they feel to nature. The aim of the research was to find out how these factors affect our happiness, our sense of meaning in life, as well as mental illness (depression and anxiety).
The researchers uncovered that what the respondents did in nature had a greater bearing on their mental health than how much time they spent outside. Simple activities, such as smelling wildflowers and sitting in the garden, had a bigger impact on their happiness and sense of purpose than the amount of time spent in nature.
Nature connectedness — a feeling of an emotional connection to nature — also played a more significant role in giving meaning to life and lowering anxiety and depression rates.
“Tuning into nature is not about time, not about minutes. It is about moments. Feeling connected to nature and engaging in certain simple activities in nature seem to be more predictive of mental wellbeing than time spent in nature,” the researchers of the study concluded.
Previous experimental studies have also found that simple but mindful engagements with nature are more beneficial than time spent in nature without any involvement. The different types of engagements studied have included:
noticing how everyday nature makes us feel
following mindfulness instructions while taking a 20-minute walk in nature, and
noting three good things in nature close to home.
Engaging and reconnecting with nature
These are encouraging findings. Nature doesn’t demand burdensome amounts of our time in return for its happiness potion. We don’t have to climb mountains or seek out forests fit for the hermit life. We only need to embrace nature close to home — a relief for those of us persevering through lockdown marathons. But to reap the benefits, we do have to make a conscious effort to enjoy the simple splendours of nature.
Sadly, for many people, even humble interactions with nature are rare. While Australian data is limited, another recent UK-based survey found that 80% of Britons rarely or never watch wildlife, smell wildflowers or draw/photograph nature. And over 60% of Britons rarely or never listen to bird songs or take a moment to mark natural cycles such as the equinox. These trends indicate that we may be losing our connection with nature, and in the process, depriving ourselves of nature’s therapeutic gifts.
Nonetheless, there has never been a better time to apply these lessons in our lives. As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to rethink our priorities and invest in self-care routines, just remember to make time for nature. Smell the flowers. Listen to the birds sing. Feel the ground beneath and watch the clouds high in the sky. Savour those enriching little moments.
As the authors of this research put it bluntly:
“By not being tuned into the nature around us, our lives are poorer for it in terms of happiness and meaning”.