3 Science-Backed Ways To Relax In Nature (Even If It's Just Your Local Park)
It's no surprise that spending time in remote spots in nature can help us feel relaxed and reinvigorated—but what about just spending time with your nearest street tree? My new book, Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us, explores the mental health benefits of nature experiences near and far. Enjoy this section from the parks chapter, which shares practices for making your next green space visit more mindful and restorative.
While Googling "parks in America" serves up links to the National Park Service and striking photos of Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains, your local pocket park can be just as meaningful as these faraway places.
"You can experience euphoria and deep reflection in those very intense natural away experiences—but they're not enough for a healthy life," William Sullivan, Ph.D., a landscape architect at the University of Illinois, explains to me. "What we need to do is find ways to have easy access to nature at every doorstep." On the topic of green space and health research, he says that a little bit of the outdoors is so much better than none.
With that in mind, here are some ideas for how to connect with any bit of green space you have access to—be it a large neighborhood park, modest backyard, or patch of city grass.
1. Take a tech-free microbreak.
If the sight of grass and the sound of birds immediately put us at ease, our tech does the opposite. Even though scrolling through social media or reading an article online seems like a relaxing enough way to spend a few minutes, the psychologists I've talked to agree that it drains cognitive resources.
"People use those activities as a break—as a way to relax or de-stress. And what's actually happening is that those activities are putting them at an even greater attentional deficit," Jason Duvall, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Michigan Program in the Environment, tells me. "If you have people take cognitive functioning tests before and after those activities, it's very likely they would perform worse afterward."
On the other hand, looking at greenery for as little as 40 seconds at a time seems to improve mental capacity, based on findings from Australia. In that research, 150 university students took cognition tests after looking over a computer image of a bare patch of roof or a green roof covered in a garden for 40-second spurts. On average, the students who looked at the green roof image made fewer errors after their microbreaks than those who looked at the bare roof: proof that sometimes letting yourself rest (with nature in sight) is the most productive thing you can do.
So instead of mindlessly scrolling (which might not be so mindless after all), take your next short break from work, chores, child care, and so forth in a park or patch of grass if you have one near home. If you can't get outside, look out the window for a minute or so and just let the mind settle on any green you can see.
2. Get your head in the clouds.
There's no need to wait for a clear day to head to the park. When's the last time you ventured outside for the sole purpose of cloud spotting for cloud spotting's sake? The next opportunity you have to squeeze in some outdoor time, bring a blanket and let your eye follow the sky.
Gavin Pretor-Pinney has made it his mission to encourage more people to slow down long enough to watch the clouds pass by. The founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, a network of self-identified cloud enthusiasts, Pretor-Pinney considers cloud spotting a fast track to restoration—one that is completely free and available to nearly everyone, for a few hours a day at least.
Crisp cumulus (those cotton-candy puffs that form discernible shapes) aren't the only clouds worth spotting. See what you can find in the altocumulus (the droplets of clouds that form a patterned blanket higher in the sky), or even the contrails (condensation trails left by planes). Pretor-Pinney sees value in all of it: "To be a cloud spotter is to be open to what's happening in the sky," he tells me. "It's more about shifting a perspective and seeing what's beautiful and exotic in the mundane, the everyday that's around you."
Take your time and watch how the scene up above changes from one moment to the next. Let it be a practice in doing something that has no pressure attached. As Pretor-Pinney points out in his book The Cloudspotter's Guide, Aristotle was on to something when he likened clouds to dreams—they only come once expectation has been dropped.
3. Engage with your walks in new ways.
When we head to the park equipped with curiosity, we're more likely to be rewarded with moments of wonder. One study by Duvall at the University of Michigan found that people who followed "awareness plans" on outdoor walks tended to rate their environment more positively than those who walked without awareness plans.
These simple plans prompted the walkers to take on new personas in their environments, such as an artist on the hunt for beauty in everyday things. The results suggest that actively looking for something when you're out in green space might help you perceive your surroundings as satisfying.
You can approach park experiences with a more curious attitude by pretending you're a painter looking for your next landscape, a botanist on the hunt for a unique plant species, or a writer searching for a lively scene to put into words. In adopting a fresh perspective, you also might find yourself noticing new details in old scenery.
"You can go out and discover things that you didn't see before and see that there's richness that's available to you," Duvall says of the value of going into nature with an awareness plan of your own. "It adds another layer to the experience."
The bottom line.
Whether you spend a minute looking at the grass or devote an afternoon to cloud spotting, research shows that bringing more curiosity and awareness to everyday outdoor experiences can make them all the more restorative. So, how will you engage with nature today?
Adapted from an excerpt from Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us by Emma Loewe (2022). Used with permission of the publisher, HarperOne.