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Archive for October, 2013

The bushfires that continue to devastate vast areas of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney have come just when the waratahs are in full bloom. I know this because I was walking in the mountains only days before the fires started and I sighted a number of these magnificent flowers. The one in the picture was not hard to spot because it was on a stem that arched right above the track.

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Happily, this particular plant and the bush around it have been untouched by the fires so far.

Because of their “wow” factor, waratahs are emblematic of nature’s capacity to stir the emotions of joy (or happiness) and wonder that are essential ingredients of wellness.

Joy and wonder, especially in combination, meet our need for the kind of mental and emotional stimulation that the pioneering 2013-09-26 14.09.59psychologist, Abraham Maslow, called “peak experiences”. These are moments when we become deeply involved with, excited by, and absorbed in the world. We come away from a peak experience both refreshed and invigorated, and with an expanded awareness that includes the needs and feelings of others. The experience may also give us a sense of transcendence and of being at one with the world.

The ingredients of joy and wonder make a heady tonic that works most powerfully in the short term but can produce effects that last a lifetime. My brother-in-law, Robert Macarthur, reminded me of this when he shared this recollection with me:

Sixty years ago we went to Mosquito Creek and saw the most striking explosion of colour I have ever seen among eucalypts. There was this circular carpet of white bush-heather, guarded by magnificent tumble-down gums with their trunks splashed with all manner of browns and yellows, whites and greys; wattles in yellow also stood around the circle their yellow blossom threaded by a purple vine; beauty that was unforgettable.

Bob was nearing his 90th birthday when he recalled the scene and, as he says, the experience occurred 60 years earlier. Nevertheless, the detail and vividness of his recollections are amazing. Such is the power of peak experiences in nature to endure in memory and to have a life-long impact.

As I listened to Bob, I could sense the joy that his visit to Mosquito Creek had given him. He had obviously experienced something more than transient and superficial pleasure. He was clearly recalling an encounter that had given him great joy – the kind of fulfilling and uplifting joy that said by some to be the deepest form of happiness.

Experiences that make us happy enhance our wellnesson several fronts, even aiding recovery from illness. Happiness not only improves our state of mind and our ability to go about our daily business, it also disposes us to be more curious and creative. We learn and think more efficiently and persistently when we are happy. Happiness boosts our energy and makes us more “playful”. It helps us to connect with others. When we are in happy we are more tolerant and agreeable to be with.

Wonder works in a similar positive way. It is an important aspect of human nature that is linked with curiosity, inspiration and the drive behind intellectual enquiry. It prompts us to pause, contemplate and reflect rather than charge on with life. It can draw us into “lifting our sights”, to projecting our thoughts beyond the reality we know, to entertaining the possibility of “something more”. Wonder “makes people stop, admire and open their hearts and minds” and in so doing to deepen their rapport with the world around them and with one another.

Without doubt, wonder and joy are extraordinarily generous contributors to wellness, and both are available from nature in abundance. Go “claim your wildness” and discover this for yourself.

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Being physically active is a major ingredient of wellness. It reduces stress, sharpens our minds, alleviates depression and makes us happier by stimulating the brain’s delivery of the “feel-good” chemical, dopamine. It helps maintain physical endurance, strength, flexibility and co-ordination while reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, osteoporosis and proneness to injuries from falls as we age. Quite a list, I think you will agree.

But despite the benefits of physical exercise, many of us are not getting enough of it.

Finding suitable activities and time to do them can be difficult but the biggest hurdle is often a motivational one. Let’s face it – we have embraced a labour-saving way of life that minimises the need to be active. We don’t even have to stir ourselves to change the TV channel. We are surrounded by temptations to take it easy rather than make an effort.

This is certainly the case in the urban environments where most of us live. But is it also true of natural environments? Are we just as tempted to be inactive when we visit a garden, park, beach or wilderness area? Or does nature encourage activity? Frisbees in the park_1_New

If it does, we could expect that people fortunate enough to live close to natural or “green” areas suitable for walking, cycling and other physical activities would be more active, less obese and healthier than people who do not. But the evidence about this is not consistent. Some studies show that living close to green spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity, but others fail to do so.

Having spent a number of years studying exercise motivation, this inconsistency doesn’t surprise me. To have nature nearby is one thing but to be motivated to use it as a setting for health-promoting physical activity is quite another. A person who finds being in nature rewarding, for example, is far more likely to use a green space for exercise than someone with a different expectation.

For those wanting to be more physically active the good news is that the rewarding delights of nature are available to everyone. We all have a brain that is pre-disposed to find the natural world interesting and emotionally stimulating. By following this disposition and  connecting with nature (“claiming our wildness”), we are opening up opportunities for easy-to-maintain physical activity. We may even discover that most nature-based activities are really a form of play.IMG_0442
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Do you see what I mean?

Not only that, participation in highly rewarding nature-based activities can motivate us to be active more generally. In my own case, for example, I found it much easier to engage in regular physical activity when my growing passion for bushwalking gave me an incentive. I was happy to swim laps or jog around the neighbourhood knowing that the time and effort involved meant that I obtained even greater enjoyment from bushwalking and other wilderness activities. I saw much the same thing happen with my daughters. A passion for bushwalking prompted them to become joggers in order to have the required level of fitness – and after 30 years they are both still running regularly and loving it.

If you would like more practical guidance on how to become an active nature lover, there are sections in my books Claim Your Wildness and A Day in the Bush that will help…or ask by way of a comment.

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