Dacher Keltner There’s no place I love more than the High Sierras. I love the clear skies and the bright clouds and the little mountain lakes and big trees and just the feeling up there. Being out there is like taking a break from the stress of everyday life. But the truth is, you don’t have to drive hours out of town to take a break in nature.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Welcome to Happiness Break, a new series by The Science of Happiness. On each episode, we’ll guide you through practices that have been studied in the lab and found to develop more things like empathy, kindness, human connection and resilience distress. And we talk about the science behind the practices, all in about 5 minutes or so. We’ll release new Happiness Break episodes on alternating weeks from The Science of Happiness. So we’ll be back with another episode of The Science of Happiness next week.
Today, I’ll guide you through one of our most popular practices, noticing nature. Essentially, it asks you to take a few minutes to appreciate the natural world in whatever form it is around you, and notice how it makes you feel. And, there’s a lot of scientific research showing that just a little burst of nature, just noticing nature, it makes you feel positive emotions like awe and inspiration, and makes you more altruistic and kind. It gives you a sense of interconnectedness and reduces our feelings of loneliness, sort of shifts activation in the prefrontal cortex and in the default mode network in ways that are good for psychological health. And our lab has found even nature videos can lead us to see more common ground with people who are really different from us. So nature is one of the great antidotes to the struggles of our times. And you can certainly save this practice to try somewhere special, but you can probably do it right now and find beauty in nature wherever you are.
To get started, find somewhere where you can focus on the natural environment. Maybe it’s your backyard or your garden, or maybe there’s a nice walk you like to take. Or maybe it’s just a tree on the street outside your window, where you can focus your gaze. Feel free to pause this practice for a moment if you need to find the right natural space for you. When you’re ready, we’ll start by just taking a few slow, deep breaths. You may want to close your eyes for a moment or soften your gaze. As you breathe, feel your belly expanding and your chest rising. Just a few more breaths like that, and start to notice the physical sensations of the breath without thinking anything about them.
You might feel air moving through your throat, nostrils, and over your lip. And if you closed your eyes, begin to open them. It may take a few moments to adjust to the light. Let your breath start to settle into its natural rhythm. And as you’re ready, start to look around you. If you’re wearing headphones, you may want to remove one of them here so you don’t miss out on the natural sounds around you. Just let your eyes wander slowly through your surroundings, the plants, animals and bugs. Let yourself be curious about anything that catches your eye and moves you. Rest your awareness there. Pause to appreciate it, and let it hold your attention for a few moments. And as you spend this time appreciating the nature around you, start to be aware of your emotions. How are you feeling? When something you see evokes an emotion, take a mental photo of it, just really take it in. What about it captivated you? What did it make you feel? Write that down in just a few words or sentences, or make a mental note of it. Let your gaze wander again whenever you’re ready, repeating these steps. What catches your eye? Take a moment to appreciate whatever it is and notice how it makes you feel.
This transcendent power of nature has changed my life, and it’s always around us. Just taking a moment to look at the sky or the clouds or the changing light of the day, or the patterns of movement of leaves and trees. It’s just a continual source of happiness that we can always tap into.
I’m Dacher Keltner. Thanks for taking a happiness break with us. We’ll be back next week with a new episode of The Science of Happiness. If you want more tips on how to do the noticing nature practice, check out our show notes. How did the noticing nature practice make you feel? Where did you try the practice and what did you see? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and share a photo of what you noticed, or use hashtag #happinesspod. Happiness Break is a production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. You can find us on Amazon music or wherever you’re listening to your podcasts.