An Exploration of Nature, Mindfulness and Well-Being

Part 2 in a weeklong series of blog posts written by undergraduate students from the 2017 spring-semester class, “Mindfulness & Compassion: Living Fully Personally and Professionally” at the University of Virginia.


Introduction

As a second year student at the University of Virginia, I started to notice myself living in a state of frenzy. I was always moving from class, to studying, to working out, to work, to extracurricular involvements — and feeling entirely frenzied as I went through my day. This feeling of frenzy led me to take a course in Mindfulness and Compassion this semester.

When first discovering mindfulness practice through this course, I attempted to meditate in a variety of ways and in a variety of places, attempting to have a successful practice. I would attempt to meditate in my room, in the library, in the airport, in a classroom, in a coffee shop — but no matter how many places I tried, I could never really simply focus on my breath in the present moment. The clutter of my mind stayed with me in the room, and I had limited success and started to feel frustrated.  It was not until I started practicing outside, in the gardens at University of Virginia, that I had a breakthrough and was able to have a successful practice.

The sound of the birds chirping, the whisper of the wind, faint voices and laughter coming from the University of Virginia Lawn, and the beaming of the sun on my face enabled me to listen to the world around me, and bring my attention to the moment. I could focus on my breath, knowing the trees were providing the oxygen I was breathing, that my exhale was giving carbon dioxide to the trees surrounding me. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my face and arms, and sense the energy system energizing me. The world was interconnected around me, and I was immersing myself in nature, simply being a being, a part of the system. When I entered the garden — not always, but most of the time — the worries of the world went out the door and I found myself able to practice, and also to leave feeling energized and restored by the garden.

I started to explore why this phenomenon was happening — why was it that in nature I found my meditation practice going well, and why did I feel such a sense of increased well-being, simply by being in nature instead of the population-dense apartment or a crowded library? After some exploration, research suggests that green space and connectivity with nature can be associated with enhanced well-being.

 

Connectedness in Nature

Researchers have also been exploring the topic of meditation and connectedness in nature. In 2017, Apsy and Proeve conducted an experiment on undergraduate students, exploring the effects of meditation on social connectedness, nature connectedness, and affect. Participants listened to one of three guided meditation recordings (mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation) in an outdoor setting, and reported a sense of greater social and nature connectedness after both the meditations, while no change in connectedness was experienced by those who did simple relaxation. This may be because, during progressive muscle relaxation, there is a reduction of awareness of people and nature in the participants’ surroundings. The impact on connectedness for both meditation groups (mindfulness or loving-kindness) showed no significant difference in the gains for level of connection felt with nature. Thus, both meditation practices were found to be effective for enhancing nature and social connectedness in the study [1].

 

Outdoor Experiences and Mindfulness

Research by Aspy and Proeve suggests mindfulness practice leading to a sense of nature connectivity. Research by Mutz and Miller supports a  link in the opposite direction — nature experiences leading to mindfulness and a sense of well-being. In children and young adults, nature experience programs through outdoor and adventure education have the potential to foster mental health, including enhanced mindfulness, in children and young adults. Mutz and Müller (2016) looked at the impact of experiences in nature on the mental health qualities of teen and college undergraduate participants, in two linked studies.  Both studies looked at the impact on Perceived Stress, via the Perceived Stress Questionnaire; Self-Efficacy, via the General Self-efficacy Scale; Mindfulness, via the Mindful Attention and Awareness Scale; and Subjective Well-being, via long-term life-satisfaction, and short-term happiness. The first of the studies was a school project called “Crossing the Alps”, in which 14-year-old participants completed a nine-day hike to cross the Alps from the north to south. These young participants reflected upon their experience and reported a significant increase in life satisfaction, mindfulness, and a significant decrease in feelings of demand. The second study, the  “Friluftsliv” project, focused on undergraduates involved an eight-day excursion to the remote wilderness of the Norwegian Hardangervidda region. By the end of this excursion, participants also reported positive effects on their mental health. Undergraduate students scored higher in life satisfaction, happiness,mindfulness, and self-efficacy. They also scored lower in perceived stress. From these two studies, Mutz and Miller conclude that outdoor excursion experiences foster psychological factors associated with resilience, well-being, and good mental and physical health [2].

 

Green Space

While Mutz and Miller looked at nature immersion programs, environmental Psychologist and University of Virginia Professor Jenny Roe considers the impact of green space within living environments in populations. She is currently conducting research on ‘Green Health’ and the effect that natural and outdoors  settings have on health and well-being. The data from her studies show that for those living in areas with little green space, especially women, diurnal patterns of cortisol showed greater hypocortisolemia — unusually low levels of cortisol — indicative of chronic stress and exhaustion. Those living in areas with more green space had diurnal cortisol patterns indicating better stress regulation. This reveals that green space impacts the physiological level [4]. In one of her publications, she speaks to the “restorative affordances of green space” as stemming from the idea of “soft fascination,” or effortless attention in contrast to that of a busy street, promoted by being in nature. She proposes that natural settings invoke involuntary attention, allowing room for contemplation and restoration of cognitive resources, as well as encouraging the sensation of “being away.” Roe proposes that “good mental health is fundamental to physical health” and is concerned that the two do not receive the same level of attention. With an increased amount, quality, facilitation, and improved access to green space in America’s cities, there exists a solution to the growing mental health problems within our community, while also providing benefits to physical health and chronic disease [5].

These three studies show the impact of mindfulness practice on feelings of connectivity,  and then subsequently how outdoor experiences and green space impact feelings of well-being, and even hormonal regulation. While the link between mindfulness, nature, and well-being is not concrete, research suggests an interrelationship between these three attributes. This research supports the sense of well-being and renewal I found from meditating in the garden, and perhaps why I sought the garden while taking a course in mindfulness practice.

 

Conclusion

Even at a school as beautiful as University of Virginia, students in our mindfulness course had never been in the gardens until taking this course. It is easy to get caught in the rhythm of the day  and not seek out time to be in nature– for me, it is in the rush of my life as a student, going to class, gym, library, home, repeat. However, these studies underscore my own personal experience about the importance of connectivity with nature — that it can lead to a greater sense of well-being and lower stress level.Mindfulness can help all of us to break away from the automatic schedule and pursue some restorative time with nature.


Footnotes

  1. p=0.034
  2. p=0.001
  3. p=0.022
  4. p=0.010
  5. p<0.001
  6. p=0.027
  7. p=0.002

 

References

[1] Aspy, D. J., & Proeve, M. (2017). Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation. Psychological Reports, 120(1), 102-117. doi:10.1177/0033294116685867

[2] Mutz, M., & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.009

[3] Barbaro, N., & Pickett, S. M. (2016). Mindfully green: Examining the effect of connectedness to nature on the relationship between mindfulness and engagement in pro-environmental behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 93, 137-142. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.05.026

[4] Roe, J., Dr. (2013, November 7). Can Green Space Beat Anxiety in Urban Scotland? Retrieved April 17, 2017, from http://www.scottishpolicynow.co.uk/article/can-green-space-beat-anxiety-in-urban-scotland

[5] Roe, J. (2016). Cities, Green Space, and Mental Well-Being. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.013.93

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