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Nature: Refocusing our inner lens through our outer world experience

It's all a matter of intentional attention...

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With the rushing pace of modern-day life, and the increasingly prevalent migration towards online working (and interacting) our inner experience of our outer world can all too quickly descend into a constant inner chatter of ‘have to do, should do, forgot to or need to do!’. We can be quick and habitual at logging in to our phones, email and social media yet how quick are we to ‘log in’ to ourselves and the natural world around us? Positive psychology may be shining a light on how we can create opportunities with the resources within and around us so that we can do just that-beyond the screen. It uses a scientific approach to understanding happiness so that we can make informed everyday choices to promote our experience of what it calls ‘the pleasant life’. The pleasant life is about experiencing more positive emotions, being aware of and savouring the present moment and being grateful for what we have already (Seligman 2004). It offers us one way to move from surviving in life to thriving or flourishing. But before jumping to the ‘what’ we can do stage, first let’s consider the ‘how’ this is even possible.

In her pioneering research Barbara Fredrickson (2001) suggested that our capacity to experience positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude and awe to name a few, was a central way in to understanding flourishing. Her research showed that when you experience positive emotions your brain actually becomes more receptive to experiencing more positive emotions! In a large review of the evidence, Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005) demonstrated that when we experience higher levels of positive emotions, (it not only feels great) but is also linked to enhanced creativity, enhanced resiliency, more positive relationships and even better immune function. Now, you may be thinking that’s great and all but how does this relate to me? With thanks to advances in neuroscience we now know that we all have the capacity to learn new things and create new habits. Couple that with another piece of research from Lyubomirsky and colleagues (2005) where they found that a whopping 40% of our happiness is connected to the daily choices we make, and this makes for a mighty strong cocktail of possibility. It shows that we actually have quite a bit of control and capacity to create opportunities to increase and boost our own experience of positive emotions.

So how do we know where to focus on so that we can create more opportunities to experience more of the pleasant life? This brings me back to nature. In recent years many areas of science have become increasingly interested in understanding the link between the great outdoors and well-being. In a meta- analysis conducted by Capaldi and colleagues (2014) they highlighted that people who are more connected to nature experience more happiness by having higher levels of vitality, positive affect and life satisfaction. In a study by Passmore and Holder (2017), they sought to discover what emotions were evoked for people who attended to their everyday natural world environment in comparison to those asked to do the same but to focus on the human-built objects in their surroundings. Out of 364 participants 121 were randomly assigned to the nature group and asked to be mindful and simply notice and give their attention to the nature they encountered in their everyday lives across a 2 week period. The remaining participants were split into the human-built object group and a control group. All participants were asked to take and upload pictures of the scenes/objects that had evoked emotion in them along with a short description of what emotion they experienced. What they found was that participants in the nature group reported significantly higher levels of positive emotion, a sense of connectedness, elevation and a greater prosocial orientation compared to those in the human built group. Positive emotions such as hope, joy, peacefulness, rejuvenation and awe were more associated with the group that noticed and gave their attention more fully to the everyday nature around them. The nature group thereby reported higher levels of well-being through their increased experience of the above positive emotions.

Interesting to note is that no fancy equipment, increased length of time or driving off to a specific nature destination was needed for participants to boost their own experience of positive emotions. All that was required was for them to consciously use, that which was already within them. Their attention. Their focused attention on the nature already around them. Based on the findings of this study I’m curious to explore the intersection between mindfulness and savouring as the above research included facets of both. Clarity around the distinction between mindfulness and savouring and the effect that each aspect has on positive emotion would be interesting to see.  Could savouring be increased following a mindful experience of nature by taking pictures with a brief written reflection of positive experiences. In what way would this effect emotion?

So perhaps the next time you venture out your front door you pack more than your wallet, keys and phone. You also set an intention to bring your attention, curiosity and willingness to notice all that nature has to offer. The invitation is to take that same time and use it to look up, look down and all around. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you touch? What can you smell…taste even? Try and challenge yourself to go beyond 3 in every sense. Take this same time, notice your pace and encourage yourself to linger a little, notice what is positive. This will help you to tap into the art of savouring the experience. You might find more than you were looking for. You may even find yourself simply by being more connected to everything else!

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