Nature & Well-Being: Gratitude

Part 4 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

Sitting on the beach, hearing the waves lap gently against the sand as the stars make their appearance into the sky, it is so easy to wonder how small I must be in the vast expanse of the galaxy. The trying times I have faced, inevitable stresses of day-to-day life and my own shortcomings dissolve into the waves as they recede back into the expanse of the ocean. I find that I have time to simply marvel at the world and be grateful for this moment. Yet, I find myself thinking that such an experience with nature will not be a frequent occurrence. The pace of every-day life has been accelerated with the technology that we rely on and it almost seems impossible to disconnect myself from the “world”. With technology at my disposal, it often seems as though the world is at my fingertips, yet when I am in nature, I realize that I do not truly know what the world is.

Walking through the campus of the University of Virginia to get to class I have noticed a vast majority of students clutching their phones as they check their notifications, idly browsing social media, or simply drowning out their surroundings as they listen to music. When we college students aren’t on our phones, we are on our laptops finishing papers, meeting deadlines or watching Netflix in an attempt to relax. The longer I kept to this vicious cycle of alienating myself from nature, the more helpless I began to feel against my negative thoughts and stresses that came my way. Trying situations abound in this world and it is easy to feel as though we are going through them alone, but being out in nature, it doesn’t seem that way.

As a member of a society in which portable information processing systems have hastened the pace of life,  it seems that the value placed on nature has diminished. Given the psychologically freeing experiences I have witnessed, it does not come as a surprise that there is mounting scientific evidence confirming that those who spend their time in nature experience a plethora of health benefits, namely, productivity.

Productivity, which is now linked to technology, is valued so highly in our society, to the point where it seems nearly impossible to disconnect ourselves from the constant stream of information, deadlines and entertainment at our disposal. It seems that there is barely any time to pause amidst our hectic lives to, as they say, smell the roses. But doing just that may be more productive than commonly believed.

 

Decreasing Negative Emotions

Currently, 50% of the population is living in urban areas and by 2050 this number may rise to 70% (2). This may seem fascinating; however, paired with the fact that urbanization is linked with, “increased levels of mental illness, including anxiety disorders and depression” the rising number of individuals arriving in cities will pose a serious threat to mental well-being (2).

A study by Bratman et. al. in 2015 tracked two groups of participants who walked for 90 minutes: one in an area abounding in shrubbery and the other along an urbanized area(2). Upon comparing the respiration and heart rates, self-completed questionnaires as well as the brain scans performed before and after conducting the experiment, the researchers noted significant alterations in a number of the participants’ brains. Those who walked in nature displayed decreased neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region functioning during ruminative thoughts which are associated with depression (2). Such findings indicate that increased exposure to nature may decrease the mental mechanism associated with depression.

These results may provide grounds for a more critical analysis of the urban layout of our cities, which are in essence a concrete jungle. Access to nature is a critical component to mental well-being and by creating urban areas that are integrated within nature, rather than supplanting nature, a more environmentally friendly and sustainable form of urbanization is possible.

 

Increasing Functioning and Productivity

In today’s fast paced world, individuals seem to be preoccupied with productivity and efficiency. To increase performance, people turn to stimulants such as caffeine and misuse drugs such as Adderall. Though usually not considered as such, caffeine is a drug, and in fact it is, “the most commonly used drug in the world” (5). Selling caffeine through the coffee shop industry has become a highly lucrative business stemming from a work culture preoccupied with output.

While drugs are successful in producing short term results, they come with side-effects. Research is surfacing that shows spending time in nature can greatly improve work output without, of course, negative effects. Research conducted by Taylor et. al. measured the effect of greenery near housing on concentration, inhibition of initial impulses, and delay of gratification. It was ascertained that girls display a linear correlation between greenery near their homes and “attentional functioning” (7). Greenery within the immediate area of their home did not show significant increase in concentration, self-discipline and delay of gratification in boys; however, this may be due to the fact that, on average, boys spend more time playing farther from home than girls; hence, their, “attentional functioning” may be impacted only if the area in which they play is surrounded by greenery (7).

There seem to be two types of attention, directed attention and fascination, according to William James. Utilizing directed attention for long periods of time, such as in conducting crucial work, has been shown to lead to, “directed attention fatigue”, distractibility, irritability, and impulsivity; however, the, “inherent fascination” people find in nature, such as simply looking out a window, can aid people in recovering from this fatigue, for directed attention is allowed to “rest” (3). The ability of nature to restore concentration, which is a key predictor for future success, may be seen as critical for human learning.

An added benefit of being exposed to nature is an increase in creativity. In 2012, David L. Strayers and his colleagues directed a four day study involving hikers during a backpacking trip.  The results of this study found that those who took the backpacking trip were able to solve 47% more puzzles necessitating creativity in comparison to the control group, which was composed of people waiting to take the hike (6). It may thus be understood that nature is able to not only increase concentration by providing a means to recover from fatigue but also an outlet which allows for an increase in imagination.

 

Helping to Builds Relationships

Feeling mentally fatigued after a long day sitting in a room, staring at a computer or completing book work, is a common occurrence in this day and age; however, time spent away from nature may have more sinister consequences than merely being mentally draining. In a study conducted by Weinstein et. al. in 2008, it has been suggested that being exposed to, “non-nature contexts” has the ability to change mental activity (8). In her study, Weinstein measured the effect of nature on intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations. Intrinsic aspirations, “concern the pursuit of goals that in themselves satisfy basic psychological needs” whereas extrinsic aspirations, “focus on externally valued goods that are not inherently rewarding but are sought to derive positive regard or rewards from others” (8). The participants who were immersed more heavily in nature reported higher valuing of intrinsic and lower valuing of extrinsic aspirations whereas those immersed in, “non-nature contexts” valued extrinsic aspirations but had no change in their intrinsic aspirations (8). It is fascinating to note that exposure or lack of exposure to nature has the ability to cause a significant change in mental activity.

In fact, those who were shown nature slides were more prone to making “generous decisions” whereas those shown non-nature slides were less prone to generosity and more prone to greed-based decisions (8). The pro-social behaviors linked with exposure to nature suggest that nature is able to increase the likelihood of individuals’ ability to build relationships with those around us. Hence, nature may be seen as a unifying factor that not only benefits personal well-being, but also increases connectedness between people. In turn, this connectedness has the potential to improve society as a whole.

 

What is Gratitude?

While there is a plethora of information regarding the benefits of nature, it may be rendered pointless if we do not act upon the knowledge we have. That being said, a crucial aspect of maintaining well-being is gratitude. This is the state of being thankful and appreciating, “what is valuable and meaningful to oneself” (5).

Research indicates that gratitude and feelings of happiness are positively correlated. In a study conducted by Dickerhoof, college students choose either an exercise that would increase happiness or one that consisted of “cognitive exercises” under the impression that either exercise would increase their “sense of well-being” (5). The “happiness paradigm” employed necessitated that the participants either “write about their best possible future selves (optimism exercise) or write letters of gratitude (gratitude exercise)” while the control group wrote about their past week (5). It was found that the happiness paradigm group displayed increased signs of well-being (5).

In another study conducted by  Krejtz et. al. in 2014, participants were separated into a gratitude group and a control group. Participants in the gratitude group recorded daily worry, esteem and gratitude for two weeks (1). It was ascertained that participants who listed that for which they felt grateful each day reacted less strongly to the stressful occurrences they experienced each day than the control group (1). It may thus be concluded that by recalling moments for which we are grateful, we may be able to put stress into perspective. After practicing gratitude by journaling, I myself have experienced a marked difference in my thought-process and ability to handle stressful situations. I no longer fixate upon the negative aspects of my life, but rather turn to that for which I am grateful in order to gain perspective of a certain situation.

 

Connecting Gratitude and Nature

While gratitude and time in nature are each linked individually to increased personal well-being, bringing these together in a practice of extending gratitude towards nature and being grateful while in nature may further deepen the benefits of well-being. As humans, we have been given the gift of nature and the plethora of positive benefits it has to offer. It is capable of improving our personal well-being, by creating balanced individuals with a tranquil and prosocial demeanor. Additionally, pondering the benefits that nature has to offer creates a sense of gratitude. Gratitude compliments nature and nature compliments gratitude. Simply by experiencing nature and practicing gratitude, personal well-being and quality of life can be vastly improved. Experiencing the beauty of nature and giving gratitude towards its beauty is quite an experience.


References

[1]Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50.

[2]Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 112(28), 8567-8572.

[3]Clay, R. A. (2001). Green is good for you. American Psychology Association, 32(4), 40.

[4]Nichols, H. (2016, November 10). Caffeine: All you need to know. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from Medical News Today

[5]Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being. Psychiatry(Edgmont), 7(11), 18-22.

[6]Suttie, J. (2016, March 2). How nature can make you kinder, happier, and more creative. Retrieved April 23, 2017, from Greater Good the Science of a Meaningful Life website:

[7]Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2002). Views of nature and self-discipline: Evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22(1-2), 49-63.

[8]Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A. K., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(10).

 

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