Photo of someone planting a tree

Ever since E.O. Wilson proposed that human beings are deeply tied to nature through their biology, people have been interested in researching how and why that might be so.

One area of research has explored the effect nature has on our physical health, demonstrating that nature and scenes of nature reduce blood pressure, respiration rate, and the production of stress hormones and allow us to recover our physical energy (Park, et al, 2010; Hartig, et al, 2003; Orsega-Smith, et al, 2004; Ulrich, et al, 1991b)

Another area of research has focused on the role nature plays in the development of the self and identity. A variety of terms—such as environmental identity and ecological self—have been used to describe a sense of identity that conservation psychologist Susan Clayton says “transcends the individual and encompasses one’s position as part of a living ecosystem” (Clayton & Myers, 2009). Research has demonstrated that acquiring an environmental identity inspires people to care for nature.

Environmental identity can also impact our individual mental health. Researchers are finding answers to questions such as, “What role does nature play in the restoration of a healthy mental state? Can nature assist individuals who are navigating emotionally challenging life experiences?” (Gonzalez, et al, 2010; McCaffrey, et al, 2010).

Other explorations consider how nature helps us develop our purpose and make meaning of life events. Does nature contribute to the evolution of personal ethics, values, and a sense of spirituality? (Health Council of the Netherlands, 2004).

Photo of someone holding a fall leaf.

Nature and Self-Identity

Go outside to visit with nature. Take a piece of paper and pen to record your thoughts. The size of the area is not important—you may choose your backyard, a tree in a city, a park, or a wilderness area.

Once you are seated, practice breathing deeply until you are relaxed. To deepen your experience, you may close your eyes and count one as you inhale and two as you exhale.

When you are relaxed, select one small natural object near you, such as a stone, twig, or leaf. Pick the object up and observe it carefully, as if it was a diamond.

Reflect, “What attracts me about this object? What does it teach me about life? How does this object remind me that I am part of nature and nature is part of me?” If you wish, ask, “How does this piece of nature reflect my body, mind, and spirit?” Record your answers.

Clayton, S., Myers, G. (2009). Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for Nature. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Gonzalez, M.T., Hartig, T., et al. (2010). Therapeutic horticulture in clinical depression: A prospective study of active components. Journal of Advanced Nursing; 66(9), 2002-2013.

Hartig, T., Evans, G.W., Jammer, L.D., Davis, D.S. Gärling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology; 23, 109-123.

Health Council of the Netherlands. (2004). Chapter 8:  research into impact on personal development and sense of purpose. Nature and Health: The Influence of Nature on Social, Psychological, and Physical Well-Being.

Hinds, J., Sparks, P. (2009). Investigating environmental identity, well-being, and meaning. Ecopsychology;1(4), 181-187.

Largo-Wight, E., Chen, W. W., Dodd, V., Weiler, R. (2011). Healthy workplaces: the effects of nature contact at work on employee stress and health. Public Health Reports (Washington, D.C.: 1974), 126 Suppl 1, 124-130.

McCaffrey, R., Hanson, C., McCaffrey, W. (2010). Garden walking for depression: A research report. Holistic Nursing Practice; 24(5), 252-259.

Orsega-Smith, E., Mowen, A.J., Payne, L.L Godbey, G. (2004). The interaction of stress and park use on psycho-physiological health in older adults. Journal of Leisure Research; 36(2), 232-257.

Park, B.J., Tsunetsugu, Y., et al. (2010). The physiological effects of shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): Evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine; 15(1), 18-26.

Park, S., Mattson, R. (2009). Ornamental indoor plants in hospital rooms enhanced health outcomes of patients recovering from surgery. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine; 15(9), 975-980.

Ulrich, R. S. (1991a). Effects of interior design on wellness: theory and recent scientific research. Journal of Health Care Interior Design: Proceedings from the Symposium on Health Care Interior Design; 3, 97-109.

Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., et al. (1991b). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology; 11(3), 201-230.