For over two years, millions of us have experienced increasing depression and anxiety[i] in response to the COVID pandemic, political conflict, economic uncertainty, and now the heartbreaking war in Ukraine. Yet reaching out to connect with nature can help heal our troubled minds.
In another time of challenge and change, during the warring states period in ancient China, Lao Tzu found renewed hope by observing nature’s lessons of resilience and renewal. Walking beside a mountain stream, he realized that water is gentle and nurturing yet with perseverance can cut through solid rock. He discovered the cycles of yin and yang, seeing the darkness of winter lead to the light of another spring. These insights inspired him to write The Tao Te Ching, a book of 81 lyric poems translated more than any book in the world except the Bible.
Now research has validated what Lao-Tzu discovered so long ago: that connecting with nature can bring us greater peace of mind, restore our vitality, help us think more clearly, and offer us inspiration.
Greater Peace of Mind
The Tao Te Ching tells us: “When you feel yourself part of nature, you will live in harmony.”[ii] While the hectic pace of modern living can promote chronic stress, research has found that even a short time in a natural setting can bring us greater peace of mind and restore our emotional balance.[iii] Connecting with nature can relieve anxiety, while walking around in a natural setting can help people struggling with depression gain a more positive mood, worry less often, and think more clearly.[iv]
Studies in Japan have shown how “forest bathing” or Shinrin-yoku can restore us to a state of harmony both physically and emotionally. When people sat in a forest and looked around for 15 minutes, then walked around for another 15 minutes, they experienced lower blood pressure, decreased cortisol levels, greater relaxation, and a more positive mood—a remarkable effect in only half an hour.[v]
As many of us have experienced, being out in nature can be energizing. It can bring us greater enthusiasm, joy, and vitality. In a recent study, college students were randomly assigned to take a short walk on a tree-lined path by a river or to walk indoors through a series of hallways on campus. After only 15 minutes, those who had walked in the natural setting experienced greater vitality than those who had walked outdoors.[vi]
The revitalizing effects of nature are apparent from not only walking outdoors in a natural environment but even looking out a window. In a Philadelphia hospital, some patients recovering from gall bladder surgery had a view of trees outside their windows while others looked out at only brown brick walls. The surgery and hospital conditions were the same. But the patients with the view of trees outside their windows needed less pain medication, suffered fewer complications, and were discharged sooner than the others, again demonstrating the power of nature to restore our health and vitality.[vii]
Research has shown that connecting with nature can improve our thinking skills, memory, and ability to focus. In a University of Michigan study, students were randomly assigned to take a 50-55 minute walk on the tree-lined paths of the Ann Arbor Arboretum or in busy downtown Ann Arbor. The students who walked in the natural setting scored significantly higher on cognitive tests.[viii] Connecting with nature not only strengthens our thinking ability but also helps us reflect on our lives and solve problems more effectively.[ix] In fact, research in Germany has found that even a brief glimpse of the color green can enhance our creativity.[x]
Finally, connecting with nature can inspire us, filling us with the sense of awe or transcendence. Gazing up at the stars or at a panoramic view of mountains and valleys can bring us an expansive sense of wonder and connection to something larger than ourselves. An experiment at the University of California, Berkeley, found that the sense of awe can even inspire us to be more caring and kind to others. Student participants were randomly assigned to either look up at a tall campus building or a grove of towering Tasmanian eucalyptus trees. The students who looked at the trees experienced a sense of awe. They also became more caring and helpful, as demonstrated when the experimenter dropped a box of pens and more tree-viewers helped pick them up.[xi]
Ways to Connect
If you’d like to experience more of nature’s healing and revitalizing power for yourself, my book, The Tao of Inner Peace, offers many strategies for connecting with nature. You can begin experiencing nature’s benefits by walking in your neighborhood or a nearby park, cultivating a garden, placing a bird feeder outside your window, growing herbs on a sunny window sill, or planting seeds, then watching them germinate and grow as you feel connected to a new source of hope. For as the Tao Te Ching tells us:
“When we value ourselves
As part of nature
And value nature
We’re at home
In the Oneness
[i] Ulrich, R. S. et al. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.
[ii] Berman, M. G., Jonides, J. & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.
[iii] Bratman, G. N. , Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G.C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249, 118-136.
[iv] Lichtenfeld, S., Elliot, A. J., Maier, M. A., & Pekrun, R. (2012). Fertile green: Green facilitates creative performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 784-797.
[v] Shiota, M.N., Thrash, T.M., Danvers, A.F., & Dombrowski, J.T. (2014). Transcending the self. In M. M.Tugade, M.N.Shiota, L.D. Kirby (Eds.). Handbook of Positive Emotions (pp. 262-277). New York, NY: Guilford Press; Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M, & Keltner, D. (2015). Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 883-899.
[vi] Research from the Center for Disease Control, https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2021/03/26/coronavirus-mental-health-cdc-data/1551616769476/
[vii] This quote and the one at the end of this essay are from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 13. An earlier version of this passage appeared in Dreher, D. (2000). The Tao of Inner Peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, now available as an ebook and a new audiobook edition, published by Penguin Random House in 2022.
[viii] Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R.F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E, Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201-230.
[ix]Berman, M.G., Kross, E., Krpan, K.M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., Kaplan, S., Sherdell, L., Gotlip, I. H., Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140, 300-305; Bratman, G. N. , Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G.C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249, 118-136; Martyn, P., & Brymer, E. (2016). The relationship between nature relatedness and anxiety. Journal of Health Psychology, 21 (7), 1436-1445.
[x] Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyasaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing):evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health Preventive Medicine, 15, 18-26.
[xi] Ryan, R. M., Weinstein, N., Bernstein, J., Brown, K. W., Mistretta, L., & Gagne, M. (2010). Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 159-168.