I am fortunate to live in sunny southern California. Shamefully, I admit that some days I forget to fully appreciate it. When I can remember to do it, I like to take a few moments to walk outside and savor the sensation of the sunlight enveloping me, the breeze sweeping my skin, and the purity of the oxygen moving through my body with every breath.
Some days, I have no choice. I may wake up with every intention to be productive and cross some items off of my to do list, but I may find that my heart is heavy or that my mind is preoccupied. The shift in feeling can be very subtle, but if I don’t pay attention and accurately identify this quality of my experience early on, I might risk the possibility of doing anything useful at all that day. I might sit in front of my computer, with the burden of my agenda heavily at my side, and attempt to work. But more often than not, days like this are not marked by miraculous bouts of generativity, but by wooly thoughts, ingrown efforts, and wasted hours. Perhaps you’ve had days like this.
A few days ago, I woke up in this very state. So I stepped outside and started walking. I soon found myself at one of my favorite sanctuaries: the beach. It was a quiet and early morning, so I was able to deeply tune in to the details of my sensory experiences. I moved slowly and keenly along the shoreline, admiring the courtship between the cold, crashing waves and my bare feet. I let myself be enchanted by the iridescent flicker of the light reflected against the water. I found a place to sit and I closed my eyes for a few minutes, breathing and cherishing the taste of the air.
It may sound like an indulgence, and when I’m in the thick of a chaotic work week, it’s the last thing I think I have time to do. But, I can say with certainty that I have never regretted any days, hours, or minutes spent in nature.
Research is now beginning to demonstrate the potential for nature’s curative ability. Just 5 minutes spent in a lush, natural setting can boost mood and self esteem . Quality time in nature targets the mental and emotional states that are particularly troublesome for productivity, like anxiety, rumination (i.e., dwelling on or replaying negative thoughts), and memory .
We also know that time in nature helps to boost immune functioning. A series of studies conducted by Japanese researchers suggests that some of this benefit can be linked to the airborne chemicals released by trees and plants to protect against insects, called phytoncides. When inhaled by humans, these chemicals can boost the activity of white blood and natural killer cells [3,4]
Other studies have found that the emotional experience of awe elicited by quality time in nature can reduce inflammation . Awe is a positive emotional state that is often triggered when we encounter something unexpected and extraordinary; it is an emotion that stirs us and inspires a sense of humility. You may have experienced this emotion when you watched or listened to a creative masterpiece created by one of your favorite artists. You might experience it just by watching this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PN5JJDh78I
It’s strange, but even though I have walked that same walk along the same shoreline countless times since I’ve moved to my home in Long Beach, I still experience a state of awe almost every time I return. Part of this emotional experience is something that I have learned to intentionally direct and motivate for myself, by opening myself to the possibility of awe.
There are so many different ways to interpret and understand the world. As children, we all navigated the world in a state of awe and wonder, because we had not yet formed the cognitive categories that allow us to quickly and efficiently sort incoming stimuli. The highly organized structures of our adult minds allow us to exercise control in our lives by making the world seem more comfortable, predictable, and familiar. But, familiarity stands in the way of finding something unexpected and incredible in the world.
So, when I went for my walk, I intentionally approached the landscape without expectation, I tried to pay attention to details I had never noticed before. I let myself be perplexed by the vastness of the horizon. It helps that I happened to make my visit at a relatively vacant time of day, which allowed me to really contemplate the dreamlike beauty of this landscape, as though for the first time.
Sometimes, when I’m really having a hard time flipping my perspective, I will take the dramatic measure of literally flipping my perspective, via cartwheels or another favorite inversion. If nothing else, these postures help me to remember not to take myself so seriously.
Although it may feel particularly counterintuitive on the busiest and most stressful days when productivity is our primary goal, it’s times like these that we must let allow ourselves a little bit of awe.
1. Barton, J., & Pretty, J. (2010). What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental science & technology, 44, 3947-3955.
2. 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.
3. Li, Q., Nakadai, A., Matsushima, H., Miyazaki, Y., Krensky, A. M., Kawada, T., & Morimoto, K. (2006). Phytoncides (wood essential oils) induce human natural killer cell activity. Immunopharmacology and immunotoxicology, 28(2), 319-333.
4. Li, Q., Kobayashi, M., Wakayama, Y., Inagaki, H., Katsumata, M., Hirata, Y., Hirata, K., Shimizu, T., Kawada, T., Park, B.J. & Ohira, T. (2009). Effect of phytoncide from trees on human natural killer cell function. International journal ofimmu nopathology and pharmacology, 22, 951-959.
5. Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positiveemotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion, 15, 129.