There is a strong body of research confirming that direct contact with nature increases mental health and psychological and spiritual development. Benefits include stress reduction, a sense of coherence and belonging, improved self-confidence and self-discipline, and a broader sense of community.
More than 100 research studies have shown that outdoor recreation reduces stress. In a study of individuals exposed to stressful videos of accidents, those who watched a subsequent nature video experienced faster recovery than those who watched a video with other content. Another study established that a view of nature, even through a window, speeds recovery from surgery, improves work performance, and increases job satisfaction. By observing the ever-changing environments in nature, individuals cultivate a positive attitude, renewed attention, mindfulness, and sensory awareness. In the words of renowned naturalist and essayist John Burroughs (1837-1921), “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”
Meaning & Purpose
Being in nature also bestows a sense of connectedness, meaning, and purpose. There is a sense of chaotic order in the way nature works; the plants and animals are interconnected in a series of complex relationships. Everything coexists in nature without the necessity of outside intervention. It is a system that has existed successfully since the beginning of time, which provides a sense of structure, coherence, and reliability for those wise enough to use nature as a model for life. Realizing that human beings are an essential component of this larger structure can supply a sense of purpose and belonging. For many, respect and enjoyment of nature also leads to a sense of spirituality and an appreciation for powers larger than oneself. The wilderness teaches that each individual is unique but also part of the larger whole. In a world bogged down by social pressures, standards of conduct, and the demands of others, nature gives people a chance to appreciate a grander sense that the world is alive, fascinating and meaningful. This universal appeal crosses all cultures and time periods. “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” advised legendary physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) .
Heightened Awareness & Physical Activity
Outdoor settings beg for activity rather than passivity as the world is best explored on foot. Hiking through the wilderness merges a heightened sense of awareness of one’s surroundings with the need to take action to move through and be part of nature. People understand and process environmental information through mapping, exploring, and interpreting the landscapes, obstacles, and surroundings. This type of physical activity reduces depression and anxiety, reduces the risk of disease, and improves psychological well-being. In fact, research suggests outdoor exercise has even more beneficial effect than indoor exercise. A strenuous trek through mountains or desert can represent both a physical journey and a journey of self. Spending time in nature’s silence better acquaints people with their own thoughts and feelings, leading to a sense of calm and inner peace. As expressed by early preservationist and Sierra Club founder John Muir (1838-1914), “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you… while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”