Nature is a Conduit for Positive Emotions

Today there is a bit of light at the end of our long darkness brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet many people still struggle with the loss of work and play and from being largely cut off from the social interactions that fill up our emotional reservoirs.

The fact that nature experiences of all types can be of some assistance during stressful times has been the subject of this blog before. And there is plenty of scientific evidence to back it up. For example, studies have shown that people suffering from mild to major depressive disorders experience less depression and more motivation to work toward recovery when they are exposed to nature (Berman, et al., 2012). We also know that stress can be reduced and coping improved through viewing nature scenes (Ulrich et al., 1991). And connection with nature improves emotional health and reduces feelings of social isolation (Seymour, V., 2016).

But the effects of nature go beyond just helping us heal what is ailing us. Nature experiences can also help us thrive. Lumber, Richardson and Sheffield (2017) made a connection between nature and increased positive emotions. And this is an important distinction.

It has been over two decades now since Dr. Martin Seligman first introduced the idea of Positive Psychology. That pivot was instrumental in taking the field of psychology from a focus solely on helping cure disease to a focus on helping people be aspirational and achieve their greatest potential.

Since the late 1990’s, there has been an abundance of research on positive emotions and thriving. One of the key researchers in this field is Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, whose Broaden and Build Theory provides much of the foundation for our understanding of the power of positivity.

According to Fredrickson, the key positive emotions are joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe and love (Fredrickson, 2009). Her theory tells us that these positive emotions broaden our perspective on our world. We see more possibilities in our future, more options for how to move forward and grow. And positive emotions build our psychological capacities such as hope and resilience, help reconnect us to the social resources like friendships and intimacy, fortify us physically through improved immunity and better coping skills during stressful times, and strengthen mental abilities like problem solving.

 

I’d like to introduce you a bit more to the emotions that Vistas Life Coaching will be focusing on in our upcoming Nature Plus Positivity series.

The project is a combination of coaching prompts and artwork, using the landscape photography of Vistas team member and artist Tim Manske. We are creating seven distinct video-based artworks designed to elicit positive emotions and help build your capacity to cope with stress and even to thrive.

We will focus on these seven emotions:

 

Serenity

The state of being peaceful, and untroubled. It’s the feeling you get when things are just right, and a perfect place to seek first in your journey. Serenity is your gateway to finding calm amidst the stress and chaos.

 

Gratitude 

The quality of being thankful. When you receive something that is to be treasured, and you take a moment to notice the gift, this is the emotion that surfaces. It is a genuine feeling of thankfulness for what you have, untethered from the obligation to reciprocate.

 

Joy

Having a feeling of great contentment and peace. You experience this emotion when something good comes your way, perhaps unexpectedly. You are safe and comfortable and able to savor the moment without putting in much personal effort. Just take it in!

 

Hope

A feeling of expectation about the future. Hope is grounded in the idea that your current circumstances, whatever they may be, can and will get better. It is the emotion of coming possibilities.

 

Curiosity (aka Interest)

Having a strong desire to know or learn something. This emotion is connected to having your attention captured fully by something. You find it irresistible to look a bit deeper, to go a bit further. It is the emotion of exploration and is connected to the desire for something new. And it requires effort on your part. There will be new skills to learn and knowledge to absorb.

 

Awe

Reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. Awe is the emotion most often associated with nature because nature has the power to make you feel your smallness. For this reason, fear can be present simultaneously. You take a pause, a deep breath. The wonder of this emotion is like a gateway to something “more”.

 

Inspiration

Being mentally stimulated to do something. This is the emotion of being moved to creativity, action and effort. You are flooded with a desire to take something on, move mountains, take on challenges. Very often seeing nature scenes or being in nature leads people to a change in direction. You see something amazing and you feel empowered to take on something amazing yourself!

The idea that artwork using nature landscapes can have such a profound effect may at first sound far-fetched. But the effects of nature images on health and well-being have been well scrutinized, and the idea holds up.

First, I want to acknowledge a point that is both supported by the scientific literature (McMahan E. A., & Estes D., 2015) as well as by practical experience, which is that being out in real nature has a more profound effect than a 2-D representation of nature can achieve. Real nature has many advantages, including feeling nature on your skin and taking its healing aromas in through your nose. In fact, if you are interested in finding out more ways you can experience nature, one excellent source is Vitamin N by Richard Louv.

However, a significant positive impact on health from simply viewing nature, including images of nature, has been demonstrated (Kaplan, R., 1992, Leather, P., Pyrgas, M., Beale, D. and Lawrence, C., 1998, Rohde, C. L. E. and Kendle, A. D., 1994).

Based on that scientific backing, my own experience and what I can glean from listening to both colleagues and clients, I believe that bringing the landscape to you when you can’t get outdoors can serve simultaneously as a healthy dose of nature at just the right moment and as inspiration to seek out real nature experiences when you have the chance.

And it is with that in mind that we are creating Nature Plus Positivity.  For now, we hope you enjoy the trailer for the series.

Find it on YouTube.

 

 

References:

Berman, M., et al (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 140, 300-305.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. Three Rivers Press, NY.

Kaplan, R. (1992). The psychological benefits of nearby nature. In Relf, D. (ed.) Role of Horticulture in Human Well-being and Social Development: A National Symposium. Timber Press, Arlington, Virginia, 125–133.

Leather, P., Pyrgas, M., Beale, D. and Lawrence, C. (1998). Windows in the workplace. Environment and Behavior, 30, 739–763.

Louv, R. (2016). Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill.

Lumber R, Richardson M, Sheffield D (2017). Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS ONE 12(5).

McMahan E. A., & Estes D. (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 507–519.

Rohde, C. L. E. and Kendle, A. D. (1994). Report to English Nature—Human Well-being, Natural Landscapes and Wildlife in Urban Areas: A Review. Department of Horticulture and Landscape and the Research Institute for the Care of the Elderly, University of Reading, Bath.

Seymour, V. (2016). Human-Nature Relationship and Its Impact On Health: A Critical Review.

Ulrich, R. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology,11, 3, 201-230.

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