Tuning in to your senses can help you experience and benefit from the bounty that nature offers—no matter where you live.
Research shows that time in nature offers an abundance of psychological and physiological benefits. However, according to data gathered by Statista, over half of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2021, with around 82% of North Americans, 80% of Latin Americans, and 75% of Europeans residing in cities. Luckily, even if you don’t have easy access to lush forests or fresh sea air, opening up to the benefits of nature is as simple as tapping into your five senses.
People who look out their windows at a natural landscape report higher life satisfaction, happiness, and self-esteem, and less loneliness and depression. But if your view offers more grey concrete than green leaves, consider some houseplants or even artwork depicting nature, which have been shown to reduce stress and offer an increased sense of mental health.
Look: Take a peek out your window or around your room and be intentional about noticing nature—the birds flitting overhead, the way the sun hits the leaves on a potted plant, or the dandelions pushing through cracks in the pavement. How does the nature around you look today? How is it different from yesterday, or a season ago?
Whether in the city or the wilderness, total silence makes us feel like something is amiss, partly because, in nature, other animals tend to go silent when they sense danger. Natural sounds like birdsong, crickets chirping, and flowing water give us information that helps us to understand our environment and to assure us that we’re safe.
Listen: If you can, open your window or go for a walk and listen for bird chatter or the wind through the trees. If you live in a city where the ambient rush of cars seems to penetrate every corner, recordings of nature sounds can also help you feel grounded and relaxed.
Smell isn’t our strongest sense, but its association with our emotions is powerful. Participants in a 2014 study associated the smells of beeswax and fresh summer air with happiness, and others reported that natural scents from blooming plants make them feel more calm and alert while boosting their mood.
Notice: What are the natural scents in your home or neighbourhood? How do they change over the course of a day or week? If the fragrance of nature is smothered by the odors of city life, house plants like jasmine and silver drop eucalyptus smell great and help keep the air fresh.
Food can be a source of sensory and emotional appeal, as long as we’re paying enough attention to notice how it makes us feel. Meanwhile, folks who grow their own food aren’t only reaping the benefits of their crops, but tend to feel more self-fulfilled, subjectively happier, and affirmed in their identity.
Savor: Herbs like basil, oregano, and thyme can thrive indoors so you can grow some of your own food and acknowledge where the food comes from. This is a simple mindfulness practice that can help even if you lack outdoor garden space. When it comes time to eat, try to focus on the tastes and textures to help you appreciate food more.
When we walk barefoot on soft, damp grass, feel the papery texture of a dried leaf in our hands, or brush against the delicate petals of a flower, we feel more connected with nature.
Feel: Touch is also a powerful force in social bonding and comfort, and one of the primary ways we can access those benefits is by petting an animal. Petting a dog, for example, is shown to help people relax, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, and provides social bonding without the energy it takes to have a conversation.
In the spaces between objects, people, sounds, and time, we can find definition, potential, and meaning. Authors Chris Willard and Olivia Weisser offer a mindfulness practice to explore what we often don’t focus on.