The beneficial impacts to mental health and wellbeing from being in nature are well-known and include increased resilience and spiritual wellbeing, more regulated emotion and the ability to relax, as well as reduced depression, anxiety, and stress. The benefits of exercising in nature go beyond that of exercising in a gym or other indoor settings, especially when the outdoor areas are particularly rich in greenness and biodiversity.
Meaning in life is also often linked to wellbeing, but studies linking nature connection, wellbeing and meaning in life are lacking. So, with a background in psychology, psychotherapy and education and a lifelong passion for being in nature, Trust Member Michael Wilson embarked on his own research into this particular connection.
His year-long psychological study suggests that alongside mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits from being in nature, connection with wildness may also facilitate how we make sense of life.
Five key themes identified in the study which may contribute to meaning-making in nature were:
- Forming an emotional bond with a nature setting such as a feeling of belonging
- Finding perspective on life such as from nature’s magnitude
- Being yourself in the present moment without life concerns
- Developing greater awareness of your feelings and experiences
- Viewing nature metaphorically to help forge deeper self-understanding
Nature Connection, Wellbeing and Meaning in Life
The sun’s morning glow casts flecks of brightness through the forest canopy to the heather, blaeberry, and springy moss. It is mid-June and the pine, birch, mountain ash, and alder which lives at the lochan’s edge, are at different stages of emergence. Delicate greens against darker tones. There is a quality of stillness in the forest, with the occasional voices of birds here and there. Enveloped by trees, I am aware that being in the forest is an immersive experience, which brings feelings of contentment, quiet joy, and a sense of being at peace with myself.
Of course, the benefits to mental health and wellbeing from being in nature are well-known, including from time spent in urban parks, on allotments, and in wilder settings. There is also a reported benefit difference between walking through nature and connecting with it by making meaningful contact. Most wellbeing benefits are linked with nature connection. This is partly because bringing more awareness to your experience helps to increase benefits. These include nature’s contribution to increase resilience (Ingulli & Lindbloom, 2013), help regulate emotion (Richardson, 2019), enable relaxation and spiritual wellbeing (Irvine et al., 2013), and reduce depression, anxiety, and stress (Cox et al., 2017). In addition, benefits to mental health and wellbeing of exercising in nature may go beyond that of exercising in a gym or other indoor settings (Loureiro, 2014), especially if time is spent in areas rich in greenness and biodiversity (Mavoa et al., 2019).
Coming from a background in psychotherapy and education (mainly teaching psychology and mental health with the Open University), with a lifelong passion for being in nature, including wild swimming and wild camping, and following training in nature-based facilitation, in 2006 I began facilitating day-long nature immersions. The explorations are informed by psychology, including my own research into nature connection through further postgraduate study. As a psychotherapist and psychologist, I am naturally interested in life meaning and sense-making. Meaning in life is often linked to wellbeing. Yet, studies linking nature connection, wellbeing and meaning in life are lacking. In the weeks leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic I was set to conduct a qualitative study, using Reflexive Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2019), to explore this topic in the Northumberland National Park. Data was gathered using Embodied Writing (Anderson, 2002a, 2002b) written in nature to capture depth; this is writing through the senses and with feeling.
Then there was the first lockdown. Fortunately, the study was able to continue by initially restricting participation to individual’s authorised to access the park (n = 17; Wilson, 2020). The study suggests that alongside mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits from being in nature, connection with wildness may also facilitate how we make sense of life. Five key themes were identified in the study as factors contributing to meaning-making, which I will briefly summarise.
First, meaning was gained through nature place relationship. Nature connection may contribute towards life meaning through a sense of belonging to a familiar nature setting and forming an emotional bond to this place: “because this place [Harthope Valley, the Northumberland National Park,] is familiar, the gentle wooded slopes and streams, the wonderful vistas, feel safe and welcoming” (Roger). During the onset of the pandemic, being in nature was not only restorative but often felt safe. Also, the quality of connection with nature often brought more depth of meaning and facilitated an increase in connection to self: “as I connect to this place, I feel more connected to myself; this feels like home; being connected is home” (Oliver). The implication is that the quality of connection comes more through pausing to notice, especially how being in nature feels, more than by simply walking through. This feeling connection may temporarily soften the boundary between nature and identity and evoke a sense of merging or wanting to merge with nature: “With the tall Oaks rising above me I feel a sense of being in nature, rather than only on nature; I am in the Oak wood, amongst the trees” (Matthew). This reported sense of being embedded in nature felt like being “wrapped” (Ray) in nature, as if “inside a 360-degree painting” (Adrian), to the extent that “being in nature is being in life” (Oliver). This quality of connection may also increase compassion for nature. Certainly, reports suggest a link between compassion and pro-environmental behaviour, so that meaning is also lived or embodied. Therefore, the theme highlights the importance of relationship in meaning-making in and through unique nature place attachments, which evoke a sense of belonging, an embeddedness in nature, and compassion towards nature’s diversity and preservation.
Second, meaning was gained from the perspectives of nature’s magnitude, time, and memory. The height of hills in Northumberland National Park, for instance, may evoke a sense of awe: “presence [of hills] is powerful, but not threatening, enormous but not overbearing, wild but not frightening” (Alison). Similarly with the height of trees: “bigger than me [and] fill me with a sense of awe” (Oliver). The significance of our lives may become evident within the perspective of nature’s magnitude. This sense of awe is often complemented with humility: “There is something about the height of the trees which humbles me […], the variations of green, the sound of birds and insects that come and go, and the murmur of air through leaves” (Matthew). Therefore, not only height but the aliveness of height may facilitate meaning. Also, the vastness of landscape, the felt-presence of “bigness” (Oliver) may reduce the scale of life difficulties to dwarf these: “All those enormous rounded hills and deep gorges formed by ice ages and prehistory puts into perspective the short lifespan of a human. The hills will be there 'for ever'. It is a humbling thought” (Vivienne). Also, being in the expansiveness of nature may locate us within a bigger picture within which life has meaning: “The Drake Stone [30ft stone at Harbottle] understands deep time. I’m nothing compared to its age or its grey bulk. But there is liberation in that thought. If I’m nothing then neither are my problems”. The impact of nature’s magnitude combined with time may also provide perspective on life difficulties: “in this landscape, my problems do not even register…we are just passing through” (Lewis). We walk paths where other people have walked, even our ancestors. Time perspective may locate the whole of one’s life, not only life problems, within a bigger picture context that extends to the beginning of time; a position from which to re-evaluate one’s life in terms of mortality; a reflective pause-in-time at life’s cross-roads for evaluating life’s journey and ways forward. Meaning may also be found in perspective-taking from memories of time in nature, for instance, of previous visits to nature settings: “[coming to] the river, the Breamish of beautiful name and memory” (Robin). Linking to the previous theme, relationship with place may become part of identity; the turning here, the vista there, the tree in front of me: “I feel connected with my past self here” (Ron). But memories are also painful: “there are no words for the wound at the very beginning of being me” (Alison). We bring the whole of ourselves to nature, including the journey we are on. Nature connection evokes memories of whole histories, not only pleasurable times. And place memories may connect to other life memories to increase coherence-making often linked to meaning in life, that is, the understanding and sense we make of life as a whole. Also, bringing the past alongside the present may help to take stock of life’s journey, while we create new memories for the future. Meaning-making is therefore linked to perspective-taking through the perspectives of magnitude (height and vastness), time distances, and memory.
Third, meaning was gained through being oneself in the here-and-now. Connecting to nature may focus attention to the present moment: “nature brings the contemplative out in me; the reflective….This moment, right now, feels like a meditation, like contemplation, with my breath rising and falling. In some way it feels that nature brings me to a place of meaning. or that I come to the feeling of meaning in nature” (Matthew). Present-centering may also enable a temporary letting go of life concerns which can be heightened when in nature: “the forest has taken away in one hour, a whole day’s worth of thought, concerns and confusion” (Philip), brought partly by the coronavirus pandemic perhaps. And: “only when demands and pressures are set aside am I able to think about the meaning of my life” (Oliver). In the absence of life expectations, it may be possible to be more oneself. Also, letting go may be more a process than a decision, and entry-points into nature (e.g., a gate) may be a type of threshold-crossing from one life-context to another, where life concerns relevant to one life-context fall away when entering a nature-life-context. Yet understanding and making sense of one’s life may also include reflecting on self-hindering compromises: “there is hardly a better place to feel any sorrows that are more easily muffled or completely buried in everyday life in towns, cities or suburbia” (Adrian). Being oneself in the present moment sometimes brings tears. And reflecting on one’s personal life journey in all its aspect often takes place in nature. Just as nature may encourage propensity to be oneself in the present moment and largely let go of life concerns (perhaps depending on the type of concern), turning away from nature may bring the return of associations linked with daily life: “I know that, as I continue, heading downhill now, the problems that I have left behind are still there” (Lauren). Therefore, meaning may be gained through coming into the present moment, and through experiences of being oneself in nature including using this as processing-time.
Fourth, meaning was gained through feeling and experiencing rather than only cognitive. Bodily-felt emotions play an important role in meaning-making. Meaning is often through uplifting (e.g., joy), dropping (e.g., sadness), or restful feelings (e.g., calm), with an often-flowing movement between these. Nature connection may give rise to a range of feelings and emotions, not always available in daily life, which may widen and enrich the subjective experience of life: “meaning is more than a thought, it’s an experience [and it] is only in a setting like [Harthope Valley] that I can ask the question ‘what is my life meaning?’. The answer that comes is not a word but a feeling” (Matthew). Thus meaning-making may occur through a spectrum of feeling responses to nature, as a primary way of connecting, with language as interpreter. It is as if being embodied is what being alive means, whilst the absence of these felt-experiences implies deficit or impoverishment. Connecting with nature increases vitality or “aliveness” (Oliver) especially through encounters with wildlife and the ubiquitous “vibrancy of life” (Roger), that for some “make life worth living” (John). In contrast: “At the start of [the Covid-19 pandemic] lockdown I was very unhappy as many of these experiences had been denied to me. But now I can enjoy open spaces like the Northumberland National Park again I am a much happier and more fulfilled person” (John). Nature connection is a valued aspect of life, promoting mental health and wellbeing, and contributing to life quality and life satisfaction. The implication is, too, that dropping emotion may be more likely without nature connections, especially with challenges brought by urban living, or depletion of green spaces and loss of wildlife. As well as feelings and emotions, the senses and sensation are important pathways for experience. They are visceral connections to nature. Sometimes body wants to lead the way: “riverside trees draw me on, the long roll of the hills encourages thoughtful walking, concentrates the placing of my feet, leading me where they will, and here is the river [Breamish]”. Allowing the body to lead the way may be a way of increasing embodiment, promoting bodily-felt experiences by bringing more awareness to sensation, and including body in meaning-making. Sometimes the senses offer routes to experiences: “I close my eyes, I feel I have to do this, to really hear the sounds [of the birds]” (Monica). And: “Today three of my senses converge to inform my responses: my widened eyes looking steadily near and far; hearing sharpened by the peace, the alone-ness; my feet have led me over rocks, through bracken, made me be still” (Robin). Individual senses offer unique ways of connecting to nature, bringing distinct qualities to nature experiences. Also, “I only need to follow my curiosity, follow my eye, follow the sound” (Matthew). Curiosity may direct a sense, going beyond the edges of familiarity, towards the novel, and may be the motivation underpinning exploration for new experiences. Therefore, prioritising sensory information in meaning-making may enable deeper nature connection. Therefore, identifying meaning through bodily-felt experiences, rather than only cognitive sense-making, may increase meaning in life.
Fifth, meaning was gained through viewing nature symbolically. Viewing nature metaphorically may enable “conversation” with settings and wildlife, as a way of forging deeper connection, and to further self-understanding. This may reveal our distinctive psychologies, life positions, struggles, and perspectives: “primroses edging down to the water’s edge, to the waters flow, [in the Harthope Valley] is a metaphor for me to live closer to my flow, [and] the solitary tree on the hill is me finding my place in life, my position in life” (Oliver). Similarly, “watching the spreading, interlocking circles of the raindrops on the river [Breamish], and thinking of the three spiritualities which draw me on, in and under” (Robin). Nature may provide opportunities for deep reflection, and perhaps more so if alone in nature. Alongside viewing nature as metaphor, there may be meaning in tendencies to project qualities onto nature: “sitting beside the River Coquet [in the Harthope Valley] where the Alder lives, dipping its long tendrilled feet into the flowing water” (Oliver). Anthropomorphism may be a way of increasing nature connection, even a way to empathise with nature’s representations by imagining life from perspective of the other; personifying nature to create intimacy and kinship. Strikingly, “conversation” with nature may facilitate insight and self-understanding. “I notice the lichens growing on the rocks and am aware of the challenge of a dry rock as an environment to grow upon, but they do not complain or have any sense of injustice. I become aware of how much complaining I probably do about how difficult life can be and allow myself to acknowledge the lichens even more. […] It is [self-]judgement. […] I am grateful for the healing of the lichen and its power to speak to me, and it does not even know it is speaking to me […], but its expression as a flat grey ring of patterns on a rockface gives to me information on how to release judgement from my body and it is happening and that is exciting to me because it is so simple yet so utterly astoundingly complex all at the same time” (Alison). In this sense, nature may become a projective, living canvas, onto which unresolved felt-subjective processes are overlaid, if led by empathic engagement with nature and curiosity, imagination, and intuition. Intuition is now accepted as a legitimate way of knowing. This paves a way for “conversation” with nature: “being part of a conversation with nature, where it communicates its presence to me, and I communicate mine” (Oliver). Also: “In some way it feels that nature brings me to a place of meaning, or that I come to the feeling of meaning in nature. It feels like a participatory process, a co-creative process, where meaning arises from my act of bringing myself to nature and nature’s response to me” (Matthew). There is a sense in which meaning-making in nature is a dynamic process, where experiences are taken as they are, without diminishing these with cognitive judgment. Therefore, identifying meaning through metaphor, projection, anthropomorphising, and implied bi-directional communication, may increase self-understanding and meaning in life.
The use of Embodied Writing texts enabled insightful examination of lived meaning-making experiences through nature connection in the Northumberland National Park. The results highlighted that participants developed meaning through immersive experiences in nature which brought perspective to their lives, through nature relationship, and by coming into the present moment which enabled a temporary letting-go of life difficulties. They also developed meaning through affective responses to nature and by viewing nature as symbolically reflecting aspects of themselves.
While positive emotion is recognised as an important pathway to meaning in life, the study suggests dropping and restful feelings are also important, while also questioning the categorising of emotions as positive and negative. Also, the role of emotion in meaning-making is not highlighted in related studies. Thus, the study emphasises the value of a spectrum of emotion and feeling as a route to meaning through nature connection.
The study also showed that meaning was further developed through experiencing nature metaphorically or symbolically, including through projection and anthropomorphically. This implies a participatory or bi-directional relationship with nature, a perspective which has strong theoretical support. Thus, meaning in life and wellbeing may be promoted through dynamic connections and exchanges with nature.
The study further highlighted that meaning may be developed through nature place attachment and connectedness, including through frequenting favourite places, and the sense of belonging this brings. Theoretically, it may be through a relationship with nature’s otherness that greater integration and self-coherence can be achieved. This may include being oneself in the present moment and, together with reflecting on life significance and value, may be key meaning in life factors.
Also, while nature connection may facilitate focus of attention in the present moment and away from dwelling on life difficulties, nature connection was also linked to perspective-taking ability including in respect of nature’s magnitude, place memory, and time as important areas linked to meaning in life.
Importantly, the literature endorses the study results in a range of ways and suggests that meaning in life and related wellbeing benefits arise through a complex interplay of factors through nature connection. Also, the study confirms Kellert’s (2012) theory that meaning derives from a range of biophilic values (e.g., symbolism, affection, attraction) impacting wellbeing.
The study implies areas rich in biodiversity and high levels of greenness may contribute to greater meaning, whereas the loss of wildness and biodiversity, and the loss of experience of this may deplete life meaning and wellbeing. The study may also have implications for urban planning to increase meaning in life and wellbeing in areas of nature poverty.
Facilitating groups in nature engages many of the study themes, in particular viewing nature as metaphor. With wellbeing in mind, my nature connection days are often focused on deepening this connection and reflecting on life meaning and may include explorations on themes related to the seasons, such as “life transitions” often linked to Autumn. Practically, the days are a balance of conversation with time alone in nature. Time alone is particularly important as conversation often distracts from nature connection.
Since the pandemic, my work is moving more towards being in nature with groups including organisations and, increasingly, with individuals, in Northumberland, the Trossachs and Cairngorms.
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