I just spent the weekend in Champagne, France, in an old country house, with good food and good friends. Despite the rain, we spent most of our time outside observing the flowers, trees, and the insects and animals roaming the land. This was the first time in a long time where I didn’t touch my laptop for a few days in a row. And it felt great.
There are many studies showing the positive impact immersion in nature can have on your mental health. For example, research shows that walking for 90 minutes in a natural setting will lower the activity in your prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination—which is when you have repetitive thoughts which are focused on negative emotions.
But now that I’m back in the city, I can’t help but wonder: how can one go about getting these benefits when living in an urban environment? Is it possible at all anyway?
Outside of yourself
A great way to manage your mental health is to learn how to “move outside of yourself.” This is when you focus on simply being present in the moment, as opposed to projecting yourself in the future or ruminating about the past. Some of the most effective methods to reach this state of grounded awareness are meditation and mindfulness practices.
Being immersed in nature is another way to reach this state. But not everyone lives in an area where this is possible or can afford to regularly travel to the countryside. Most people reading this article will actually be living in a medium to big city.
This is why the research paper I’m going to tell you about made me so happy. In this two-week experiment, the researchers divided people in three groups:
While the “business-as-usual” group just went on their daily lives without any particular instructions, participants in the “nature” and “human-built” groups were asked to pay attention to how natural or human-built objects in their everyday surroundings made them feel, take a photo of the objects or scenes that evoked emotion in them, and to provide a description of emotions evoked.
Design your own positive emotions
As you may have guessed, the participants in the “nature” group showcased significantly higher levels of happiness, as defined as their sense of elevation and how connected to other people they felt.
But what makes this study so interesting is the definition of “nature” the researchers used. This could be anything that was not human-made: a houseplant, a bird, a dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk, or even just sun through a window.
“This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness. This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”Holli-Anne Passmore, Positive Psychology Researcher.
This study is fascinating because it’s so applicable to our daily lives. It shows that it’s all about being proactive with our mindfulness and designing your own positive emotions. So, next time you take a walk in the city, take a few minutes to look up at the trees, the birds, or the flowers on the windows.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff
I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.
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