By Erin Fernwood
During these months spent in quarantine during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, never before have we had more pressure to find alternatives to our everyday routines that we can no longer execute. Every single person across the globe has had to rearrange their lives in some way in order to accommodate for drastic changes. Along with these individual impacts, societies of every nation are carrying massive amounts of stress and uncertainty about the state of the world, revealing an important question: how do we promote good mental health during such times? There are many answers to this question, but here is one you may not have thought of. UC Berkeley professor Dr. Dacher Keltner has been investigating the positive benefits of nature on our mental health for several years. Dr. Kelnter focuses on linking nature to his work on awe, which is defined in his papers as the subjective feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world and requires changing your beliefs (Keltner, 2009). Experiences in nature are one of the strongest elicitors of awe (Anderson et al, 2018).
A 2018 study from UC Berkeley’s psychology department studied the impact of awe in nature on the emotional well-being of 124 veterans and youth from underserved communities. They were sent on a white-water rafting trip, and data was recording during and after the excursion. Statistical analysis of self-report measures showed that well-being was significantly higher on the follow-up survey administered a week after the trip’s conclusion than the baseline report. Statistical analysis also revealed that awe, more than any other positive emotion, was responsible for long-term, lasting wellbeing. In a second study included in the same paper, the researchers wanted to see if these results were generalizable to everyday life. Researchers conducted a study with 119 Berkeley undergraduate students in which participants filled out a daily diary in which they reported on their emotions, social interactions, and awe experiences. They finished out each daily report with a short writing prompt about awe or another positive emotion that stood out that day. The results revealed that daily doses of nature increased feelings of awe. This in turn improved peoples’ wellbeing more than other positive experiences or emotions.
Awe in nature research is also taking place outside of UC Berkeley. Paul Piff of UC Irvine, who often collaborates with Dr. Keltner, is also a pioneer of research in this field. While his most recent papers are still in press, there is an open-source article by Dr. Piff which suggests that the feeling of small self – in other words, the feeling that the world is much larger and more vast than we are – can lead to an increase in prosocial tendencies. The literature review includes five different studies that together imply that the awe feeling inspired by nature can encourage us to be more helpful to others (Piff et. al, 2015). These conclusions are not objective and remain open to interpretation; perhaps realizing mankind’s unique and solitary condition enhances our selflessness and the desire to connect with others of our species.
These two foundational papers by Dr. Keltner and Dr. Piff set the groundwork for more exciting research to come. Connecting with nature could increase personal well-being during these stressful times when COVID-19 is impacting our lives. Additionally, mental health improvements in uncertain circumstances may encourage us to reach out and help others that are in need. If you have access to nature, I encourage you to prioritize going outside for the therapeutic benefits it can provide.
Anderson, C. L., Monroy, M., & Keltner, D. (2018, June 21). Awe in Nature Heals: Evidence From Military Veterans, At-Risk Youth, and College Students. Emotion. Advance online publication.
Piff, Paul & Dietze, Pia & Feinberg, Matthew & Stancato, Daniel & Keltner, Dacher. (2015). Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology. 108. 883-899. 10.1037/pspi0000018.