Why Being (Alone) in Nature Is Good for You
The benefits go beyond stress relief.
Posted March 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
- Being alone in nature relieves mental fatigue and restores our attention.
- Our desire for wilderness solitude is increasingly due to the need to “de-tether” from digital connectivity.
- Periodically withdrawing from society and into nature allows you to drop your public persona and connect with your authentic self.
When you’re feeling stressed by the demands of everyday life and feel the need to get away, where do you go? If your instinct is to head outdoors, you’re on the right track. Spending time by yourself is especially restorative when your solitude takes place in nature.
Perhaps this is because nature has a set of qualities that end up being well-suited to our nervous systems. Environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan noted that being in nature, away from the sounds and sights of modern life, creates a sensation that he called “soft fascination,” a state where we feel simultaneously transported, calm, and buoyant. You may have felt something similar when gazing at a particularly gorgeous sunset, or pausing mid-way through a hike up a forest trail to gaze at the view below.
According to Kaplan, whose research established Attention Restoration Theory (ART), spending time in nature helps restore our cognition when it's been over-taxed by directed attention (i.e. studying for exams, working on a project with a looming deadline). In nature, our minds are allowed to drift, gaze, wander, and be immersed in the moment. We aren’t focused on one specific thing; rather, we experience the world using multiple senses – sights, sounds, smells, sensations – instead of working so hard to filter things out in the name of productivity.
The Call of the Wilderness
The benefits of solitary time in nature are compounded when we go into the wilderness. The United States was the first country in the world to establish a National Wilderness Preservation System, marked by the passing of the Wilderness Act of 1964. The U.S. now has over 11 million acres of protected land that are accessible to the general public through the maintenance of national parks and forests.
In a recent study, researchers identified four primary reasons people seek solitude in the wilderness, and the first is – perhaps not surprisingly – to disconnect from their devices. The researchers called this the need to de-tether from digital connectivity, and it includes the desire to “experience life without everyday technologies,” primarily email, text, and social media.
Such de-tethering, or what some might call a digital detox, allows for the cognitive renewal that Kaplan described in his attention restoration theory. In an age when our attentional resources are increasingly devoted to our devices, and we are expected to be constantly available to our social worlds – work, family, friends, even the news – withdrawing into nature can be the antidote to our 21st-century stressors. What’s more, a recent study found that spending time in nature actually promotes positive body image, an effect that is directly opposite to what hours on Instagram can do.
Disconnect to Reconnect
De-tethering from technology paves the way for three other primary components of wilderness solitude. People seek the wilderness because it allows for physical separation from the sights and sounds of the workaday world. Such withdrawal gives us the necessary freedom and privacy to drop our public persona and social obligations, what the researchers call societal release. They argue that although we are social creatures, it’s important to periodically retreat from the larger culture and reconnect with our authentic selves. Who are we when we’re not beholden to others? What do we value? What do we want?
These questions allow for introspection, the process of going inward to reflect and contemplate. Kaplan also referred to such introspection in his theory of attention restoration, calling it the final and “most deeply restorative” stage of all, made possible because of the cognitive quiet that emerges when we are alone in nature.
But the wilderness is not only for self-focus; it’s also a place where we can be in awe of the natural world and feel connected to something larger than ourselves. In fact, research has shown that we’re least likely to feel lonely, and more likely to feel spiritually connected, when we’re alone in nature, compared to being at home by ourselves or alone in a public place.
Perhaps this is why so many of us instinctively turn to the outdoors when we’re feeling depleted or overwhelmed. Research confirms that we're on the right track.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182.
Lang, T. & Borrle, W. T., (2021). Wilderness Solitude in the 21st Century: A Release from Connectivity. Science and Research 27(3). https://ijw.org/wilderness-solitude-a-release-from-digital-connectivity/
Long, C. R., Seburn, M., Averill, J. R., & More, T. A. (2003). Solitude experiences: Varieties, settings, and individual differences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(5), 578-583.
Swami, V., Barron, D., & Furnham, A. (2018). Exposure to natural environments, and photographs of natural environments, promotes more positive body image. Body Image, 24, 82-94.