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Easing Loneliness With Wonder, Awe, and Nature

Even when alone, wondrous moments with wildlife restore our sense of belonging.

Key points

  • Returning to a sense of wonder with wildlife opens us to connection and reduces feelings of separation.
  • Wonder and awe experienced with wildlife can energize us to help others (prosocial behavior).
  • Wonder restores our curiosity and openness to others and buffers us from sensitivity to rejection.
  • Wonder and awe can ease overthinking and chatter in our minds when we are anxious.
Source: Andrew Patrick/Pexels
Source: Andrew Patrick/Pexels

Many of us, in our loneliest of times, have had awe-inspiring experiences with wild birds, trees, starlit skies, or oceans—and suddenly realized we didn’t feel so lonely after all. We sensed we belonged to something greater and wider, the “more-than-human world,” as David Abram, ecologist and philosopher, writes.

Recent research reassures us that we feel less lonely during moments of awe that take our breath away. In a grief support group that I’ve co-facilitated, a woman who lost her son to an opioid overdose claims, “On my walks by the river alone, I feel the spirit of my son, who loved red-tailed hawks, as they circle over me and land near me. I open up to a sense of wonder and gratitude—and it feels good deep in my soul.”

Another older man in the group offers, “I don’t really feel lonely when I’m out on the water alone, in my kayak, exploring, wandering. I love just hearing the sound of the lapping water and the wind. It’s all I need to find solace when people have let me down.”

Whether or not we are alone, we can always turn to our sense of wonder, take a walk, or sit by our window and look out to the sky. Mary Oliver beckons us with her poem, “Wild Geese”: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

I can attest to my encounters with blue herons: They always call me out of my fretful thoughts when they fly over me with their huge, graceful wings. After a moment of sheer amazement looking up at them, a sudden shift in my brain occurs—snapping me out of my overthinking. I feel a clean, fresh chance to see the world differently as the din of human drama inside my head fades into the background. At least for a while, I see clearly and think clearly. I think of Rachel Carson, who believed we could always find our strength through moments of natural beauty: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Taking a look at wondrous moments like these through neuroscience research, studies such as a UC Berkeley study in 2021 (Bai and colleagues) show that, indeed, our minds are relieved of our overthinking and mental chatter when we are overcome with awe. States of awe and wonder have a fascinating way of shifting our thought patterns and moods.

And further, these states of mind are healing in times of loneliness, isolation, or alienation. Comprehensive research from The Greater Good Science Center encouraged socially isolated people during the COVID-19 pandemic to return to the wonders of nature. This proven source of solace and belonging reassures us that when we feel lonely, we can turn to our love of birds, dragonflies, horses, ponds, oak trees, or our own cat or dog to ease our distress. (In Australia, one survey showed that one-third of Australians love animals more than people.)

Ironically, when we are alone and enjoying our wondrous times with animals and wildlife, we can restore ourselves as relational beings and remember how we naturally reach for connection, even with the sky. We feel energized, hopeful, and smaller in a good way, knowing that we still belong in the world where we can hold space with others in all life forms. One study (Jennifer Stellar, Dacher Keltner, and colleagues) reveals that people who have had a powerful encounter with awe feel more inclined to help others (prosocial behavior).

These humbling moments that take our breath away can allow us to see ourselves in a whole new light. Awe is considered by research to be a self-transcending emotion—a state of mind that literally stretches our awareness beyond our usual comfort zone and awakens us. Other studies tell us that states of awe and wonder help develop compassion and humility, qualities that empower us to reach out to others and break out of isolation.

States of awe and wonder also provide ways to open our minds to a deeper sense of curiosity. We want to learn and explore more, to follow our callings, passions, or missions that beckon us to reach out to others and try new activities. Research shows that openness and curiosity (rather than closed-mindedness) are crucial for tackling loneliness as it buffers us from sensitivity to rejection. If we are curious and interested in a topic, a class, or a group, we are more inclined to meet fellow enthusiasts of wildlife and animals.

Oddly enough, taking off to the wilderness away from humanity is the way I get back my faith in humanity. When I feel lonely, discouraged, or compassion-fatigued (including compassion-short with myself), I venture on a solo journey for a couple of days to the wilder parts of the Maine coast. Living in Boston, this option is quite accessible and not expensive, and I always welcome a restorative trip to watery coastal sanctuaries where herons, egrets, and osprey thrive. No matter how unfit or unwelcome I have ever felt with my human groups, I can always find belonging in my element of ocean bays, pines, mossy rocks, and lavender sunsets at the eventide. I fill myself with wonder, enchantment, and mystery just for a day, and my old self (who is a bit of a mystic) is back. Two days later, I’m back in Boston, being enthusiastically gregarious and social, teaching wordplay, poetry, or theatre games for people with disabilities and seniors.

In my work as a rehabilitation counselor and educator, I’ve witnessed isolated, alienated, and lonely people find their way back to connection with other humans through their connections to wildlife and animals. Despite an abundance of research and countless reports of successful animal therapy and wilderness programs, many of us still feel a sense of shame and stigma about what may seem to others as escapism or self-indulgence. Yet profound and spiritual states of awe during wilderness and animal encounters have helped the lives of trauma survivors and those who fought suicidal urges and other destructive inner demons.

If you yearn to build your tribe, there are proven ways to enhance your social life with fellow humans who also love the “more-than-human” world. Ideally, working in your local community allows new friendships and camaraderie in your social circle.

Finding Like-Minded People

  • Activism and advocacy: Join a cause or organization to help save wildlife habitats. In your local community, you are likely to meet people with similar interests.
  • Join a birder group or other hiking or walking groups in your area.
  • Work as a volunteer for a wildlife conservation organization or animal therapy services. (The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations likely have chapters in your area.)
  • Work part-time or per diem as a dog-walker or cat-sitter.

In conclusion, in the meantime, I will share this simple message for times when we feel lonely:

“Wherever there are birds, there is hope.” — Mehmet Murat Ildan

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