‘If nature was a drug, it would be hailed as a miracle!’ Stephen Kaplan
And like all drugs, you always underestimate its power to addict. But if I’m going to be addicted to anything, I’d choose nature. As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Vancouver. Here, I have the choice of every type of food the world has to offer at my fingertips. I could be at the airport in half an hour, then I could be on a flight to any country in the world. I have endless choices for entertainment – movie theatres, clubs, museums, historic attractions. Yet, truthfully, I cannot wait to get back to the ranch in a few days and I’m not alone in feeling that pull towards nature.
Humans have evolved in nature, relying on the seasons to provide food, learning animal behaviours to hunt successfully, using trees to find shelter, developing a deep and meaningful connection to nature. It has only been in the last thousand years or so that humans have started to move indoors, and evolutionarily speaking, that time is the blink of an eye. Our bodies and minds still need that connection to nature. The more we industrialize ourselves, pack ourselves in cotton wool, forget once-essential skills like how to build a fire, how to survive outside, the more our minds cry out for nature, ‘Get me out of this concrete jungle and into a rainforest!’, ‘Get me out of this car and into the wilderness!’
The strong, sometimes overwhelming need (yes, it is a need) for nature is biological and this is called biophilia. This theory describes love for nature as evolutionary, as I’ve explained above. Individuals with a high degree of biophilia are more ethically responsible and have greater reverence for nature and derive meaning, order and harmony from it (Kellert, 1993). Meeting this need for nature contact creates healthy development, if we can’t meet these needs, we suffer from a ‘nature deficit’ (Davis, 2012).
This nature deficit is seen as more people want to reconnect with nature. A short walk through Central Park or the like isn’t always enough though, as we see more people looking for a holiday into the wilderness, where they seek to disconnect from the city and reconnect with nature. Often, people also want to get involved in conservation while they’re here – care for orphaned orangutans in the rain forests of Sumatra, replant trees and remove invasive species in the UK. On a wilderness experience pack trip with Chilcotin Holidays, our guests can get involved with conservation too, working to help our partner the Wilderness Stewardship Foundation (WSF). You can record wildlife so we understand population numbers and behaviours. You can help in the removal of invasive species like burdock to stop their spread to new areas. This means you can not just experience nature, but be a part of conserving it, helping you gain a deeper and more meaningful connection. And increased connection with nature has a huge psychological benefit, it’s a reason why people seek wilderness experiences.
Modern life creates mental fatigue as it draws our capacity for attention. This can result in a huge array of cognitive deficits, including attention, emotion, human-relations skills and self esteem (Berman et al, 2008). However, in nature, our attention is effortlessly drawn to new and fascinating experiences, this leads to cognitive restoration (Davis, 2012).
The last theory of why we seek nature which I will discuss here is trans-personal psychology. This theory argues that humans are nature, because nature is a mirror into ourselves (Davis, 2012). The ‘ecological unconscious’ is the rest of ourselves, and connection with it creates a sense of wholeness, positivity and the optimization of development (Davis, 2012). Being in nature takes us away from the ego, where we are poorly aware of our environment and into a greater level of openness, fulfillment, peace and inner freedom, Davis (2012) calls this ego-transcendence.
So, what are the psychological benefits of nature which underline these theories discussed and make it so addictive for all of us?
Nature expose has been shown in multiple studies to induce relaxation and reduce stress. Studies have found wilderness backpackers to self-report lower stress levels than people on a non-wilderness vacation (Hartig et al, 1991). Ulrich (1984) found watching a video of nature aided a faster stress recovery than an urban video and nature views increased recovery time post-surgery.
And then there’s the cognitive benefits. Davis (2012) lists many cognitive benefits, but the one that fits best with the experiences we offer at Chilcotin Holidays is that nature exposure increases nature connection. It also creates more positive emotions and greater ability to reflect about a problem. And the degree of nature connection was shown to be greater for truly being in nature than virtual nature (Mayer et al, 2009). At Chilcotin Holidays, this is something we experience first hand, every single day and know it to be true. Being in nature also increases creativity by 50% (Atchley et al, 2012), we see know the value of that. Our best content for Trails to Empowerment comes from experiencing and being close to nature, whether we film a video in the wilderness or write a blog story in our office at the ranch.
Nature also has an astounding effect on mental health. Nature connection reduces depression and anxiety, improves overall mental well-being, meaningfulness, sense of purpose, self-esteem and feelings of empowerment. At the ranch, everything we do works to create a sense of purpose and empowerment, yet Davis’s (2012) findings show how just being in nature already sets us on the path to achieve this. Which leads me to wonder if Chilcotin Holidays was based in the city, would the sense of empowerment and purpose we all feel be so strong?
And then, the next benefit is the transformational journey, an integral part of life at the ranch. ‘Direct contact with nature is a portal to the deepest and highest levels of mental health’ (Davis, 2012). Being in nature causes feelings of ecstasy and awe more than most other experiences. Time in nature also increases people’s appreciation for experiences, not material objects (Rudd et al, 2013). Kaplan and Talbot (1983) found families on a wilderness experience program developed a sense of belonging and a ‘complex awareness’ of nature. After the experience, participants remembered nature as ‘real world’ and a way to respond to challenge and opportunity in their everyday life (Kaplan and Talbot, 1983). Beyond this, people felt they were nature, not just experiencing it (Terhaar, 2009).
So, with all these positive benefits, is it any wonder I find being in nature so addictive? Being in nature makes me feel alive, infinitely connected and gives me a sense of belonging. When we have a positive experience, it releases dopamine, which stimulates the reward centre of your brain, it makes you feel good so you want to repeat the experience. The reward centre is linked to memory and motivation. Your brain remembers what triggered the dopamine and made you feel good and is motivated to repeat the experience (Raypole, 2019). In the case of nature, that could mean you want to keep taking your morning run through the park instead of on the treadmill in the gym. It could mean you want to hike or ride in the wilderness on your next vacation. Or, in my case, it means I can’t wait to leave this city and get back to the mountains which have become my home. In this way, it’s not unrealistic to describe nature as an addiction. And it’s sure healthier than smoking, drink or drugs.
If that’s inspired you to venture into the wilderness, let Chilcotin Holidays journey with you. A wilderness experience pack trip with our experienced mentor guides will help you reconnect with nature, discover a whole new side of yourself and set you on your transformational journey. To find out how to get involved, or for more information, visit chilcotinholidays.com or phone us at 1-250-238-2274.
This story was inspired by ‘Psychological Benefits of Nature: Research Findings for Wilderness Therapists’ by John Davis (2012). You can read the full article here: http://www.johnvdavis.com/files/Psy-Nature_SOLB_2014.pdf
Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L. And Atchley, P. (2012) ‘Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings.’ PloS One, 7(12).
Berman, M.G., Jonides, J. and Kaplan, S. (2008) ‘The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.’ Psychological Science, 19(1207).
Davis, J. (2012) ‘Psychological Benefits of Nature: Research Findings for Wilderness Therapists.’ School of Lost Borders. Boulder, Colorado.
Hartig, T., Mang, M. and Evans, G.W. (1991) ‘Restorative effects of natural environment experiences.’ Environment and Behavior, 23(3-26).
Kaplan, S. and Talbot, J. (1983) ‘Psychological benefits of a wilderness experience.’ In Altman, I. And Wohlwill, J.F. (Eds) Behavior and the natural environment, pp. 163-203. New York.
Kellert, S.R. and Wilson E.O. (1993) The Biophilia Hypothesis, Island Press, Washington D.C.
Mayer, F.S., Frantz, C.M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E. and Dolliver, K. (2009) ‘Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness to nature.’ Environment and Behavior, 41(5).
Raypole, C. (2019) ‘Dopamine and addiction: Separating myths from facts. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/dopamine-addiction. Accessed: October 27th 2019.
Rudd et al in Davis, J. (2012) ‘Psychological Benefits of Nature: Research Findings for Wilderness Therapists.’ School of Lost Borders. Boulder, Colorado.
Terhaar, T.L. (2009) ‘Evolutionary advantages of intense spiritual experience in nature.’ Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, 3(3).
Ulrich, R. (1984) ‘View through a window may influence revovery from surgery.’ Science, 224(4647).