The importance of nature for improving mindfulness

Introduction

Connecting with nature and practicing mindfulness, both, independently, have preventative effects for mental health and well-being. Connecting with nature is associated with “…greater life satisfaction, lower anxiety, improved vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, creativity, pro-social behaviors, and pro-nature behaviors” (Van Gordon, Shonin & Richardson, 2018, p. 1655). Individuals who are more mindful experience greater positive affect, autonomy, competence, and life satisfaction (Shutte & Malouff, 2018).

Van Gordon et al. (2018) described how contemplating various aspects of nature can lead to mindful awareness. Similarly, nature can be used as a guiding principle for establishing mindful awareness (Van Gordon et al., 2018). This paper will address whether a reciprocal, bi-directional relationship exists between connection to nature and mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves the practice of purposefully bringing one’s attention to the present moment (Shutte & Malouff, 2017). Practicing mindfulness can enhance an individual’s self-awareness, thus, improving their ability to self-regulate (Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011). Nagy and Baer (2017) explained that mindfulness training can decrease rumination and increase attention, working memory, and self-compassion. In addition, mindfulness can contribute to decreased avoidance of inner experiences as a result of the adoption of compassionate and non-judgmental attitudes.

The practice of mindfulness can take place in clinical and non-clinical settings.Mindfulness-based treatments are a part of the “third wave” of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and include: mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (Nagy & Baer, 2017).

Mindfulness-based treatments are facilitated by trained clinicians in either a group or one-on-one setting. Mindfulness-based treatments often incorporate elements of mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness, body scanning, and yoga. Similarly, a key aspect of mindfulness-based treatments consists of finding ways to incorporate mindful awareness into one’s day-to-day life. Many individuals perceive there to be less stigma attached to mindfulness-based treatment in comparison to other mental health treatments (Nagy & Baer, 2017).

Practicing mindfulness in non-clinical settings is growing in popularity as a result of greater recognition of the associated benefits (Nagy & Baer, 2017). Many employers have found that implementing employee mindfulness programs enhanced performance, safety behaviors, relationships amongst staff, and decreased stress. Many schools have incorporated daily mindfulness practices into the classroom.

Similarly, mindfulness has been incorporated into resilience training programs for police officers. Many athletes are using mindfulness to improve sport-related performance and decrease anxiety and injuries. In addition, many apps, such as, Headspace, have been developed to encourage individuals to adopt a regular mindfulness practice (Nagy

& Baer, 2017).

Benefits of Spending Time in Nature

Spending time in nature is associated with many positive health effects (Van Gordan et al., 2018). The stress reduction theory (SRT) explains how spending time in nature is associated with recovery and restoration from stress (Marselle, Warber, & Irvine, 2019). Previous research has noted that group walks in nature provide more mental health benefits when compared to urban and indoor settings (Roe & Aspinall, 2011; Thompson et al., 2011; Marselle, Irvine, & Warber, 2013).

Marselle et al. (2019) described how exposure to nature after an acute stressor can shorten the stress response and promote stress recovery. Similarly, previous research has noted that group walks in nature provide more mental health benefits when compared to urban and indoor settings (Roe & Aspinall, 2011; Thompson et al., 2011; Marselle, Irvine, & Warber, 2013).

Exposure to nature activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thus, eliciting a feeling of calm (Bratman, Daily, Levy, & Gross, 2015). Wells and Evans (2003) determined that spending time surrounded by nature has buffering effects on stressful life events in children who live in rural areas (Wells & Evans, 2003). A study by MacKerron and Mourato (2013) used an app to track participants’ mood and geographical location. The study found that participants reported more positive moods when they were in natural environments (MacKerron & Mourato, 2013).

Similarly, Van Gordon et al. (2018) discussed how the human body consists of the primary elements of the earth: water, wind, earth, and fire. Therefore, spending time in nature fosters re-connection and restoration of the body, mind, and soul (Van Gordon et al., 2018).The stress-reducing benefits of nature can be gained without going outdoors. Bratman et al. (2015) described how viewing photos and videos of nature can decrease an individual’s cortisol levels.

Van Gordon et al. (2018) described how the parasympathetic nervous system can be activated by touching wood or viewing pictures of flowers. Marselle et al. (2019) explained that individuals who live and work near natural environments have lower stress levels in comparison to those in more urban areas. Similarly, Windhorst and Williams (2016) discussed how the incorporation of indoor plants, plant walls, pictures of landscapes, and windows overlooking nature are helping to promote positive mental health at post-secondary institutions across Canada.

Connection to Nature

Nature connectedness refers to one’s awareness of their beliefs, emotional response, attitude, behaviour, and sense of place in nature (Van Gordon et al., 2018). Van Gordon et al. (2018) described a relationship between one’s sense of connection with nature and the associated amount of time spent in nature. The relationship suggests that the stronger an individual’s connection to nature is, the more they are willing to spend time in nature. As a result, individuals who feel more connected to nature have more opportunity to experience the positive benefits of spending time in nature (Van Gordon et al., 2018).

The biophilia hypothesis describes how humans have an innate predisposition to connect with their surroundings (living and non-living) to achieve psychological fulfillment (Windhorst & Williams, 2016). Scientists describe a continuous interaction between the environment and one’s body, senses, and emotions (Van Gordon et al., 2018). Windhorst and Williams (2016) described how people are often sick and unhappy due to a lack of connection with the natural environment.

Overall, the amount of time individuals spend outdoors has dramatically decreased as a result of urban living and technology (Greenleaf, Bryant, & Pollock, 2013).Carrera-Bastos, Fontes-Villalba, O’Keefe, Lindeberg, and Cordain (2011) described how a lack of time spent outdoors can contribute to many negative health consequences, such as, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (Carrera-Bastos et al., 2011).

Similarly, many studies have established that too much time spent indoors can contribute to fatigue, aggression, loss of emotional control, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and an increased prevalence of psychological disorders, such as, depression (Greenleaf et al., 2013). As a result, the term “nature-deficit disorder” was established to describe the increasing disconnect with natural environments and resulting negative health consequences (Louv, 2008).

Nature and MindfulnessHinds (2011) described how the feeling of wonderment often experienced in nature has comparable effects to mindfulness. Similarly, the soft fascination of nature enables individuals to be involuntarily attracted to various stimuli and engage their five senses (Van Gordon et al., 2018). Being attentive to the environment around one’s self creates a feeling of calm, rest, and contemplation (Van Gordon et al., 2018). This phenomenon can be explained by the attention restoration theory (ART) (Marselle et al., 2019).

The ART describes how an individual’s ability to pay attention can become depleted after continued use, stress, or adverse life events (Marselle et al., 2019). Depleted attentional capacity can lead to an inability to comprehend uncertainty, fatigue, confusion, negative emotions, and decreased awareness of interpersonal cues (Korpela, Hartig, Kaiser, Fuhrer, 2001). Distancing one’s self from routine is positively associated with attention restoration. Nature provides an ideal setting for directing one’s attention away from stressors and focusing on the beauty nature has to offer (Korpela et al., 2001).

The ART is a two-stage process. The first stage is attentional recovery, which focuses on clearing the head and directing attention away from thoughts, worries, and stressors (Marselle et al., 2019). The second stage is reflection, which focuses on thinking about one’s values and goals. Marselle et al. (2019) described how the reflection stage may foster resilience.

Reflecting on adverse or stressful events enables an individual to determine the overall impact and organize the steps that occurred throughout the progression of the event (Marselle et al., 2019). Van Gordon et al. (2018) described how focusing on certain properties and qualities of nature can increase mindful awareness and guide meditation. For example, focusing on the running water of a nearby river or the sound of the trees rustling in the wind.

Similarly, Van Gordon et al. (2018) outlined how visualization of nature can be used in meditation to enhance mindfulness and encourage individuals to cultivate various qualities of nature. Visualization of nature during meditation can take place outside of natural settings and be used as a strategy to enhance indoor mindfulness meditation (Van Gordon et al., 2018).

Mindfulness and Connection to Nature

Active mindfulness in nature can enhance and deepen one’s connection with nature (Van Gordon et al., 2018). Howell, Dopko, Passmore, and Buro (2011) described how the enhanced sensory experience of being in nature is often fostered by mindfulness and can positively strengthen one’s feeling of connection with nature. Unsworth, Palicki, and Lustig (in press) explained how mindful meditation in nature was the most effective modality for enhancing connection with nature when compared to other nature programs.

Similarly, a study by Wolsko and Lindberg (2013) discovered that connectedness with nature was associated with mindfulness. Specifically, participants who scored high on a mindfulness scale for ‘awareness’ also reported more environmentally friendly behaviors.Brown and Ryan (2003) described how the adoption of mindfulness techniques, such as, remaining in the present moment and being non-judgmental can enhance one’s connection to nature.

Specifically, the adoption of these techniques led to the study participants being more engaged in their surroundings when in nature (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Similarly, Duvall (2011) analyzed the effects of telling study participants to be more aware of their surroundings during nature walks. The study determined that those who were more mindful were more satisfied with their surroundings.Nisbet, Zelenski, and Grandpierre (2019) emphasized how mindfulness meditation in natural environments can enhance the benefits of spending time in nature (Nisbet, Zelenski, Grandpierre, 2019).

In addition, a study by Aspy and Proeve (2017) compared the results of assigning participants to a mindfulness meditation intervention in relation to feelings of connectedness with nature. The study revealed that those in the mindfulness group experienced greater connection to nature in comparison to those in the control group (Aspy & Proeve, 2017). Howell et al. (2011) directly mentioned support for the reciprocal, bi-directional relationship between connection to nature and mindfulness.

Howell et al., (2011) specifically mentioned a study by Hamann and Ivtzan (2016) as supportive evidence. This study had participants spend 30 minutes a day in nature for 30 days. The findings suggested an increase in mindfulness at the end of the 30 days in comparison to those who did not spend time in nature (Hamann & Ivtzan, 2016). Similarly, Howell et al (2011) highlighted the cycle of interaction between nature and mindfulness as an explanation for the observed connection between nature and mindfulnessWhen immersed in nature, many report feelings of wonderment, fascination, calm, rest, and contemplation (Hinds, 2011; Van Gordon et al., 2018).

The ART explains how the diverse stimuli located within nature can engage involuntary attention and encourage one to live in the present moment (Marselle et al., 2019). Similarly, the practice of mindfulness, in general, encourages non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.The literature describes how humans have an innate need to connect with their environment, as a result, lack of connection with nature can contribute to many negative health consequences (Carrera-Bastos et al., 2011; Greenleaf et al., 2013; Louv, 2018; Windhorst & Williams, 2016).

More time spent in nature is correlated with a greater connection with nature (Van Gordon et al., 2018). Being mindful in nature can enhance connection with nature, as mindfulness increases one’s awareness of their surroundings (Howell et al., 2011). Individuals who are mindful in nature experience a more intense sensory experience, which is often more rewarding (Howell et al., 2011). Additionally, practicing mindfulness techniques, such as, non-judgmental awareness can enhance one’s appreciation for the beauty of nature (Brown & Ran, 2003).

Given that the various elements of nature can provoke mindfulness and that practicing mindfulness in nature can enhance one’s appreciation for nature, it is fair to say that a relationship exists between spending time in nature and mindfulness. Similarly, given that mindfulness can moderate the level of one’s connection with nature, it is fair to suggest that there is a relationship between mindfulness and connection to nature. It is clear that the relationship between mindfulness and connection to nature is both reciprocal and bi-directional as more mindfulness leads to greater connection with nature, and greater connection with nature leads to enhanced mindful awareness.

Connection to Mental Health and Health Promotion

These findings are significant to the field of Health Promotion. As mental health problems rise, it is important to establish low-cost interventions to help alleviate the burden on the healthcare system (Marselle et al., 2019). Marselle et al. (2019) described how natural environments have the potential to facilitate various health promotion interventions. Natural environments provide a low-cost alternative to typical mental health treatments.As mentioned in Nagy & Baer (2017), there is less perceived stigma surrounding practicing mindfulness in comparison to other mental health treatment options.

It could be hypothesized that this is also true for when it comes to spending time in nature. The findings in the literature suggest that nature can be used to enhance mindfulness, thus, potentially lessening the need for individuals to attend costly sessions facilitated by a trained professional. Natural environments are all around and provide an accessible setting to promote mental health and prevent mental health problems amongst individuals of all ages.

Furthermore, when considering mindfulness and nature, emphasis is often placed on consideration for the mind-body connection and one’s connection to the natural environment. These values align with pieces of the psychosocial model of care, and overall movement away from the medical model of care. Van Gordon et al. (2018) described a need for a more comprehensive model of care. Specifically, a model of care that considers biological, psychological, and environmental factors, as too often the field of medicine considers people as separate from their environment (Van Gordon et al., 2018)

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper was to establish whether there is a reciprocal, bi-directional relationship between connection to nature and mindfulness. The literature provides supportive evidence of a reciprocal, bi-directional relationship between connection to nature and mindfulness. Similarly, the literature supports the notion that there are many positive benefits for practicing mindfulness and spending time in nature. Connection with nature promotes mindfulness and overall well-being. Spending too much time indoors can contribute to emotional dysregulation and psychological disorder (Greenleaf et al., 2013).

The biophilia hypothesis describes how human connection with nature is necessary to reach psychological fulfillment (Windhorst & Williams, 2016). Practicing mindfulness encourages individual’s to be in the present moment, which in turn, improves self-awareness, attention, and emotional regulation (Howell et al., 2011; Nagy and Baer, 2017; Shutte & Malouff, 2017). Nature can facilitate increased mindfulness as a result of its ability to attract one’s involuntary attention (Van Gordon et al., 2018).

Similarly, spending time in nature provides many buffering effects for stressful and adverse life events, which are essential for mental well-being (Marselle et al., 2019; Wells & Evans, 2003).The literature surrounding ecopsychology, nature-based interventions, and mindfulness is limited. However, many articles note the need for more research in this area. More research on the specific relationship between connection with nature and mindfulness is needed to further strengthen the support for this relationship.

Similarly, knowledge translation is needed to ensure the public is aware of the benefits of spending time outdoors. Too often, people are seeking out alternative options to reduce stress and achieve happiness. Walking out the front door and into nature may be the answer for promoting mental well-being across all populations, no matter socioeconomic status, education, or race. Overall, connecting with nature has the potential to close the existing gaps that cannot be filled by traditional mental health treatment services.