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From greyness to joy: nature and wellbeing

Belinda is a former journalist with the BBC and the Guardian, among others, and has been a nature lover since her parents took her on birdwatching walks as a child. Since she started practising and teaching mindfulness, she has become even more aware of the power of nature's smallest offerings, be it a wildflower or a falling leaf, to heal the soul.

Does it seem like these early months in 2021 are longer, colder and greyer than usual? It does to me. Perhaps being confined mainly to the home, without the usual distractions of shops, restaurants and social events, focused more attention than usual on the gloom. This period of the year is often said to be the most depressing time, the bleak midwinter when we’d really rather be hibernating.


But perhaps you’ve also noticed that, with few other pleasures available, your daily walk is the highlight of your day, and that despite the wet, the mud and the solid grey sky, the spirits do lift a little when you get outside? Where I live in London, there was an outbreak of joy when it snowed recently, with some socially-distanced sledging and excited dogs chasing snowballs. As a mindfulness teacher, I encourage my students to savour events like this, to pay special attention to the experience, to really feel the joy of the moment.


Whilst admiring the snow from my kitchen, I noticed a goldfinch flutter down to my bird feeder. Then another and another until there were six goldfinches there all at once. I noticed that I felt lucky, especially gratified that the colourful little birds spent quite some time pecking away at the sunflower seeds. Down below were two chubby wood pigeons waddling around competing with each other for the seed the goldfinches dropped. I know they’re not everyone’s favourite, but I admire their beautiful pinks and mauves with that striking splotch of white at the neck. Just watching the birds do their thing on a wintry day made me feel relaxed and at peace.


When we pay attention to small, enjoyable details of the world around us we activate the parasympathetic wing of our autonomic nervous system. This is the part that calms and soothes, the flip side to the sympathetic wing with its fight or flight response and stress hormones. Observing nature is the perfect way to harness parasympathetic responses; find a magnificent tree or a beautiful flower and ‘bask, luxuriate and delight in it,’ Rick Hanson, PhD, neuropsychologist and meditation teacher suggests. ‘Besides lifting your mood, settling your fears and brightening your outlook, the stress relief of taking pleasure offers physical benefits too; strengthening your immune system, improving digestion and balancing hormones.’


Think back to the last time you witnessed a beautiful sunset, a flock of geese or a field of wildflowers and you’ll probably remember that you felt uplifted. And even just recalling the memory, conjuring a picture of it in your mind and holding it there for a while, can have beneficial effects.


These days there’s a lot of science going into researching what many of us already know or feel to be true: that nature hugely supports our wellbeing. A study published in Nature in 2019 found that people who reported spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature had higher levels of health and wellbeing than those who reported no exposure. Doctors around the world now routinely prescribe outdoor exercise as an antidote to modern plagues like stress and obesity. It’s also perfect for those experiencing ‘Zoom’ burnout these days!


One current study, responding to the twin constraints of lockdown and our increasingly urban environment, is looking at the different ways people can explore nature from home. The University of Exeter, along with the BBC, has created an experiment to investigate how people respond emotionally when watching scenes of nature on a screen. (Click here if you want to take part.)


Studies like this may have crucial policy implications, giving nature an elevated importance in our ever more urbanised world. But the message for all of us is simple: grasp a nature experience as often as you can, even if it’s a walk in a local park, a moment in your own garden or growing something on a window sill. Enhance the benefits by really paying attention, not just to the visual, but to the sounds, smells and touch sensations of the experience. Next time you hold a flower, a feather or a pebble, turn it over in your hand, examine its details, wonder at its ‘design’, colour and texture. You may find yourself feeling the awe and wonder you felt as a child when you discovered a ladybird or butterfly in the garden. As poet Mary Oliver wrote in her poem ‘Mindful’, ‘Everyday I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light. It was what I was born for — to look, to listen, to lose myself inside this soft world — to instruct myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.’


Rewilding will help restore nature to its crucial position in our own lives; as we look after it, it will look after us, both allowing us to breathe and sparking our delight.