These are some of the women of Samunnat, an NGO in Birtamod, Nepal, that is doing exemplary front-line work in the war against domestic oppression, violence and sexual exploitation. The stories behind many of the smiles are heart wrenching but these women are no longer victims. With the support of Samunnat, they are finding safety, liberation, autonomy, self-respect, confidence and hope. In Nepali, “samunnat” means “flourishing” and this is surely the goal of these courageous and inspiring women.
Flourishing refers to the experience of life going well. It is a combination of feeling good and living in a way that is satisfying, fulfilling and meaningful. As high level mental wellbeing, flourishing is the optimal state of mental health.
There is abundant evidence that flourishing is good for individuals and for society. Numerous studies have linked high levels of well-being to learning efficiency, creativity, productivity, good relationships, altruism, good health and longer life expectancy.
Felicia Huppert, who has been studying well-being for 20 years, says that it has the following features:
- Positive emotions: feeling happiness, joy, pleasure
- Engagement: taking an interest in your work and activities
- Relationships: having people in your life that you care for and who care about you
- Meaning and purpose: feeling that what you do in life is valuable and worthwhile
- Accomplishment: feeling that what you do gives you a sense of accomplishment and makes you feel competent
- Emotional stability: feeling calm and peaceful
- Optimism: feeling positive about your life and your future
- Resilience: being able to bounce back in the face of adversity
- Self-esteem: feeling positive about yourself
- Vitality: feeling energetic
She has found that positive well-being is much more than the absence of mental illness. It is a distinct condition that is desirable not only for itself but also because of its contribution to physical health – by way of enhanced immune functioning especially.
Not surprisingly, psychologists and others have plenty of sound advice for attaining high level well-being. A common theme is the importance of nurturing a positive outlook on life. But overlooked in much of this advice is the recommendation to connect with nature. This is a serious oversight especially in the light of what we are learning about the effect that nature has on the human brain.
I apologise for the quality of these images but they are good enough to illustrate a fascinating point. The images show what was revealed by brain scans taken under two conditions – first when people were viewing photos of nature (top image) and then when they were looking at photos of urban scenes (bottom image). The coloured areas are the ones that came to life under the different conditions. The images cover just one thin horizontal slice of the brain. In the research report where I found these images there were over a dozen other slices represented in the same way. But the images of each slice paint the same picture. The areas of the brain fired up by nature photos are different from those activated by urban scenes.
The differences are so marked that we can talk reasonably of an “urban brain” and a “nature brain”. And the way these differences play out in our thoughts and feelings is even more interesting. Viewing urban scenes has a mainly a negative impact while nature images stir positive emotions and ways of thinking. More specifically, urban scenes ramp up activity in brain centres, notably the amygdala (marked in the bottom diagram), that are associated with feelings of fear, anxiety and avoidance and also with impulsivity (making snap judgements) and anger. Overactivity in these centres impairs or inhibits decision making, reflective thinking and altruistic behaviour. It also increases our sensitivity to threats and unpleasantness and our recall of negative memories. This combination can make the world look rather dismal and also start a vicious cycle of apprehension, anxiety and sadness – the prospect of gloom and doom sets off the amygdala, which reinforces the gloomy outlook, which sets off the amygdala and so on.
In contrast, views of nature activate brains centres that favour a positive outlook. These centres are associated with feelings of joy, pleasure, contentment and vitality and with the heightened recall of happy memories. They also fire up centres that are associated with emotional stability, better concentration, affection and empathy.
We don’t need brain scan studies to tell us that urban living places a strain on mental health. But the studies help us to understand why it does. More importantly, they show that we can dampen the activity of the urban brain and substantially reduce risks to our mental health by switching on the nature brain. A pretty good reason for “claiming our wildness”, I’d say.
I would be very interested to have your thoughts about this. Perhaps you have a personal story about turning on your nature brain to share. Hearing such stories can be very helpful.
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