The positive effects between our wellbeing and increased exposure to natural environments is widely referenced in modern literature. Bowler, Buyung-Ali and Knight (2009) are among researchers who have found the positive benefit of going for a walk is larger when experienced in a natural environment compared to a synthetic environment. Meaning a walk in the park, taking the time alight your senses: with the sounds of the crunches of leaves beneath your feet or the smell in the air before rain is about to hit the ground is better for you than flicking through your timeline while mindlessly pacing on the treadmill for twenty minutes.
Working between a small town in Suffolk and the city of London, it is fair to say I often find myself swept into the caffeine fuelled, fast paced, largely westernised, hash tagged bubble of life. Despite working in the field of mental health, recently I have found it all too easy to ignore the need for the pin that needs to regularly enter our lives, pop that bubble, bring us back down to earth and remember what is truly important. For me, that pin came in the form of some home truths from a dear friend and a trip to Cornwall.
In Newquay this year, I was given the opportunity to take part in a “beach clean-up”. A volunteer activity ran by an environmental group ( “Save our Seas”) that aims to collect litter from our beaches and coast lines in a bid to save the environment. The action for happiness organisation lists ‘giving’, ‘relating to others’, ‘learning’ and ‘becoming part of something bigger’ as four of the ten keys to happier living. The beach clean-up encompassed these four keys perfectly, so I did not hesitate in signing up. Plus I was completely swayed by the images presented to us of sea turtles trapped in food packaging and seals with raw skin abrasions from beer bottles. I and my two friends headed down to Fistral beach on the Cornish coast at dusk. We were kitted out in reflective vests and hard top hats, armed with our litter pickers and thatched bags. We were part of a group of forty likeminded litter pickers which in itself created a sense of belonging and familiarity that just isn’t obtained by a double tap on Instagram.
I find days where I have watched the sunrise to be carried out with increased attention to detail and gratitude. Watching the sun rise above the sea created a self-awareness in myself, in my body, posture and mind that I had been oblivious to for months. I found myself to be motivated, calm and thankful for the day ahead. A stark difference from my usual mornings of guzzling an Americano and swapping my trainers for heels after I have successfully ran from the station to the office door.
My friends and I began exploring caves, rock pools and pathways to collect plastic, glass and foreign objects from the beach. It was almost like some sort of treasure hunt. We were so proud of the fishing nets, glass bottles and micro-plastics we removed from the beach. We spoke of sea turtles swimming back to their mothers and seals swimming freely in an organic blue ocean, free from pollution and harmful substances and objects. We were laughing and interacting with strangers who shared the same interests, we were whispering in caves that allowed our voices to echo. The innocence of what we were engaging in felt authentic, playful and rewarding. We purposely left our phones at home, but found ourselves feeling more connected to others and the world around us than we had in a long time.
Stefan Einhorn (2005) once wrote that being kind is the most important factor in achieving success and satisfaction in life. Without objective statistics to back this claim, it could be easy for one to write such quote off flimsy or ignorant to the crux in how difficult life can be. However, positive psychology researchers have conducted studies that have in fact proved kindness leads to increased happiness. Lyubomirsky (2001) noted practising acts of kindness as one of the nine steps to happiness and improved wellbeing within an individual. When I think about kindness, I tend to picture the altruistic human behaviours we often demonstrate between ourselves. The ones that, dare I say I witness less of, on the eight thirty morning tube into Paddignton as elbows and running heels prioritise only the need of the self than I did picking up my vegetables from a farm shop in Newquay as the shop assistant offered to help me with my bags. I picture doors being held open for strangers, food being given to the homeless and seats being given up on the bus for children and the elderly. Until my recent trip to Newquay I had never considered the effect being kind to the environment could have.
Playing a small part in the “save our seas” campaign I felt proud, fulfilled and part of a community that wanted to also share this kindness with me. True to the broaden and build theory (Fredrickso,1950) , I had never opened my mind up to consider scale of beauty and wonder found in nature. The fact that all I am, all I have and everything I will ever need can be found in the environment. By taking part in the beach clean-up I felt as though I was saying thank you. I also felt connected to ancestors that came before technology and survived purely on what the natural earth had to offer. I would recommend popping the fast paced westernised bubble that so many of us live in regularly, and by giving back to what serves us most. Our natural environments.
About the author: Amy graduated the University of Essex last year and is currently a second year MAPP student. Her dissertation on kindness and wellbeing is due to be published later this year.