From observations in psychotherapy we know that mental health and well-being become 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 primarily on your own self — your needs, worries, regrets or desires for the future.
Now, a new empirical study finds evidence in support of 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 true “mental health” – the realm beyond healing and managing conflicts and dysfunctions (as important as they are). Mental health includes the capacity to move “outside” of yourself, and thereby Increase and broaden your mental and emotional perspectives about people and life in general. That’s the realm that grows, for example, from meditation – the mindfulness state of being grounded in awareness of the present moment. It’s a kind of buffer zone between being pulled by emotions and thoughts about the past, or into anticipations about the future.
Rather, you’re simply present. Conscious in the moment. Observing the flow of your mental and emotional activity; but not being pulled into it. That conscious “now” allows for greater inner calm, clearer judgment, and it enables more focused, creative responses to everyday life.
This new study examined the specific effect of immersion in nature upon the overall sense of well-being of participants, and was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. For the experiment, researchers 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 two 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 for the first group 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.
I think we're seeing a growing convergence between empirical research like this and an emerging view of mental health: A mixture of building positive emotions, broadened perspectives, beyond ego concerns; and personal values that enhance and reflect awareness of our inherent interconnection with others. These are dimensions that have been ignored too long by the mental health professions, as we have focused primarily on healing mental illness, per se.