By Kris Abrams
Earth, rivers, mountains and trees! Silent canyons, babbling creeks and growing green gardens! If you spend time in nature, you’ve probably noticed that you feel happier out there than in here.
But why? One of the better known theories, the “biophilia hypothesis,” suggests that we love nature because we evolved in it. We need it for our psychological well-being because it’s in our DNA. This theory rings true to me. But it’s so broad, it also leaves me grasping for more. What is it about nature and our relationship to it, that brings us so much joy?
I’ve been asking this question for some years now. I’ve studied Ecopsychology, wilderness therapy and nature-based therapy. In my private psychotherapy practice, I work with clients in nature and bear witness to their experiences. And personally, I spend as much time as I can in nature. Putting all of this together, I’ve developed my own ideas about why nature makes us feel good and helps us heal. Here are the top ten:
10. Nature teaches you that there is nothing wrong with you.
- When you’re in nature, you don’t have to look in mirrors. Instead, you’re either focused on the setting around you, or on what you are doing, like climbing, setting up a tent, or gardening. Studies show that people’s body image improves when we spend time in nature, and I think this is part of the reason why.
- When you’re alone in nature, or with a loving friend or group of people, you get sweet relief from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and all the other ways we oppress, stigmatize and belittle one another.
- On the contrary, nature displays incredible diversity in all her glory. There are fat trees and skinny ones, short ones and tall ones. Within a single clump of yellow flowers, you might see a pink one and realize that it’s a mutation. In nature, we don’t say ‘How wrong! That flower is different; that tree is fat!’ Instead, we say, ‘How beautiful!’ This impacts us below the level of thought.
9. Time slows down.
Urgency, deadlines and “clock time,” as measured by hours, minutes and seconds, melt away. Clocks teach us to abandon the natural rhythms of our bodies and the Earth and conform to a schedule rooted in our economic system. That creates a lot of stress.
On the flip side, nature models a healthier pace of life. Trees and plants grow s – l – o – w – l – y. Deer graze calmly. Rabbits and squirrels scamper about, but that is their natural pace. Everyone is moving according to their natural rhythm, and you begin to do the same.
8. Nature models “just enough” sustainability.
Our culture teaches us that we never have enough. We strive to make more money, buy more things, eat more delicious food. Mainstream culture also encourages us not to think about how this over-consumption affects others, such as the sweatshop laborers who make our clothes, or the people and animals who depend on a climate in balance.
In contrast, eco systems embody harmony and balance. Trees grow to a height that reflects the nutrients and water immediately available. Squirrels store the right amount of food to get them through the winter. (Imagine how absurd it would be if squirrels expected their collection of nuts to grow exponentially without any effort on their part—as we do with our investments!) Quietly witnessing this balance and harmony is like salve in the wound of overconsumption.
7. You surrender comfort and control.
Our culture propagates the harmful myth that we should strive to be as comfortable as possible, to make life as pleasurable possible, and to resist hardship as much as possible. No myth has made us unhappier as a people. We simply can’t be pleasured or comfortable all the time. We can’t control everything. Trying to achieve permanent comfort and control leads to a dull, meaningless life that kills the soul.
Nature calls you back to reality. You can’t stop it from raining. You can’t delay the setting sun. You can’t set the temperature to a comfortable 70 degrees. If you’re climbing a mountain, your muscles are going to burn.But with this surrender comes such relief! You awake from a dream and realize how little control you really have. You remember that hardship and lack of control are part of life, and accepting this reality makes it not only bearable, but possible to feel the joy of being alive.
6. Nature reminds you of death so you can appreciate your life and its natural cycles.
In the U.S., we do everything we can to avoid the knowledge that we, and everyone we love, are going to die. In nature, you encounter dead trees all the time. And, behold!—they’re nursing young plants to life. You walk through a burn area and see a profusion of wildflowers thriving in the newly enriched soil. You might even see animal skulls and bones. When we come face to face with death, we value our own life more, the present moment more, and experience surges of joy to be alive. Many cancer survivors know this truth well from a harsh encounter with death. Nature eases us into this reality.
5. As the noise of our crazy culture fades, your mind calms and you experience silence and stillness. What a relief! Enough said.
4. You behold the beauty of nature.
How is such majesty possible? The strength of that mountain, standing there for all those years! The miracle of this single flower, infused with sunlight. The revelation of a tree, rooted deep in the earth, stretching to the sky, and bearing silent witness to the world around it! You feel awe and joy and are whole again.
3. You remember that you are connected to all living things.
You feel that you belong to this Earth. That you are part of the community of nature. You are made of the same substance, and that you are no better—and no worse—than that bird, that tree, that other human walking up the trail.
2. You remember who you truly are.
You feel comfortable in your own skin, you experience your own quiet peace and strength, you sense the inner you that is the true you. The mask you present to the outer world is irrelevant for a time, and put in its proper place.
1. You experience the Divine.
Whether you call it God, Earth Mother, the Great Mystery or by another name, nature helps you to connect with this powerful, loving presence. You might feel this presence loving and supporting you. You might receive guidance and wisdom. Nature brings you closer to our own spirit and to Spirit.
These are the reasons why I believe we are so happy in the natural world. This is why nature heals, and helps us to live lives of meaning and joy.
Kris Abrams is a nature-based psychotherapist and shamanic practitioner with Cedar Tree Healing Arts.