The Free Secret to Happiness
The outdoors is an essential part of our happiness.
Posted October 16, 2017
I recall working with a client in my private therapy practice. It was about 20 years ago, and Marta shared her struggles with me. After attentively listening to her, I recommended one simple activity that would provide her instant relief. She lived near the beach, and I encouraged her to watch the sunset. Considering her close proximity to the ocean, it would really only take her a few minutes out of her day.
We met every weeks for months, and I’d continue to help her through her struggles, and I’d gently remind her to watch the sunset.
“I’m just too busy,” was her regular reply.
Unfortunately, she never followed my simple advice.
Marta stopped coming after a few months. About fifteen years later, I bumped into her, and we chatted. After hearing how events had unfolded for her over the past few years, it was clear that life had not been easy for her and she continued to have the same struggles as she did years ago when we met in my office. In fact, life circumstances had gotten even worse for her.
So why is it I strongly recommended she watch the sunset, and how would this have helped her? In this post we’ll explore this topic.
Nature Is a Healer
The outdoors is an essential part of our happiness. What I mean by the outdoors is a place where we disconnect and are surrounded by nature. We leave books, electronic devices (or, if we have them with us, we put them in airplane mode), and anything else behind that will distract us from being present with what is around us.
By doing so, we give ourselves the space to discover what is unfolding inside us. We are checking in with our minds and bodies. As I’ve described in several posts, happiness is our natural state. It’s a quiet state of being where we are not swayed by the mind chatter that usually leaves us distracted and unable to focus on the here and now. When we’re in nature, we tap into this quiet and happy part of ourselves.
Early in my career as a licensed clinical psychologist, I worked in a medical group. During my time there, I regularly spent my weekends in the woods. As a kid, I was fortunate that my parents took me on camping trips frequently. Thus I’d gained an early appreciation for the outdoors.
On Mondays, when I’d show up at the medical group, I’d share about my outdoor adventures with my colleagues, and they would express how they were impressed with the way I spent my time. Despite their appreciation for what I did, however, none of them decided to implement the silence of nature into their lives.
One doctor in particular, admired those who placed a high priority on maintaining mental health. He had read about famous individuals known for their healthy lifestyles. I recall telling him that many of those whom he respected, were known for taking time off from work, looking inward, and investing in discovering the nature of their existences.
Despite my colleague’s interest in those who took care of their minds and bodies, he could not kick his workaholic habit. Thus he was wise enough to see the value in studying about healthy people, but he couldn’t apply what they did to his own life.
Nature Is Our Emotional Thermometer
When we are in nature we give us the space to listen to ourselves. When we are removed from the distractions of daily life, we discover what we’re feeling inside.
From this place of non-distraction, we are able to gauge how we’re doing. In my experience working with countless men and women throughout my 30 years of private practice, I can confidently say that most people have little idea of their emotional state of being and lack a clear and deep understanding of themselves.
I often hear people tell me they feel like everything’s fine. But a sentence later, they’ll describe their infidelity, their excessive alcohol consumption, or countless other activities that hurt themselves or others. While their words may express they are fine, their actions demonstrate the opposite.
We as humans, with our big, sophisticated brains, are capable of convincing ourselves that we’re doing well when we aren’t. In an extreme example, think of heroine addicts. The drug provides an initial high that feels as intense as anything a person could ever experience. In that state, they are able to do the most self-destructive behaviors without feeling any negative consequences. Until, that is, the high wears off.
While we may not be heroine addicts, we can just as easily succumb to any number of addictions that can delude us into thinking our lives are fine. Some addictions, such as workaholism, can actually be praised as admirable. “She such a hard worker!” “He never stops!” are common ways we express over work as positive.
Staying perpetually busy is another example. In our non-stop state, we may be helping lots of people and improving their lives. “What could be wrong with that?” you may ask. In the long run, this may leave us burnt out, tired, neglecting our own well being, and maybe even driven to illness.
Being in the quiet of nature, we may find aspects within us that cause us emotional pain. This can be a life-changing discovery. I’ve spent my career working with people who’ve had some of the most horrendous experiences you can ever imagine.
By addressing what required their attention, and healing from their past wounds, they’ve overcome seemingly insurmountable circumstances. And embracing nature is one of the most powerful healing tools we have.
Take Time Everyday to Be in Nature
I am a strong believer in spending extended periods of time in silence. A retreat is the perfect place for this. They are typically located in settings surrounded by nature. At the same time, extended retreats may not be available to all of us.
But we can definitely take time everyday to step outside and appreciate the sky, the clouds, trees, birds, sunrises, and sunsets. Most of us have a public park nearby or trees that line a sidewalk. Nature is everywhere.
We lead complicated, chaotic, and busy lives. That’s why I recommend that everyday, you disconnect and invest a few minutes appreciating the outdoors. Over time, you’ll grow to value the emotional benefits that come from embracing stillness and silence. Nature is a priceless gift. And the peace of mind that nature provides is available to everyone, right now.