It’s no secret spending time with nature can lower stress and lead to a happier life. But sometimes people don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by all the choices and unsure what to do. What’s more, a lot of folks have hardly spent time with nature. Maybe this is you. If so, there’s good news. You can discover your green personality regardless. All it takes is a little self-exploration.
Exploring Your History With Nature
Let’s start with my Green Personality exercise from Leaf Your Troubles Behind. The first step is to get a piece of lined paper and a pen. Then answer this question: what is your first memory related to plants or a natural landscape? How old were you? Where were you? Now write for as long as you can about that experience. If another more powerful experience pops in your head, follow that image and write in detail about it. Try to remember who you were with, the time of day, the sounds and smells around you. Make it vivid.
If this doesn’t jog your memory, try this: make a list of your favorite people from your childhood. Did you ever enjoy a nature-related activity with that person? If so, what was it? And why did you like it?
If there are no joyful memories, is there a sad one? What did it feel like? Describe that in as much detail as you can. Then, when you’ve got it all down on paper, start a new paragraph. How can you reclaim that experience and turn it into a good one? What can you do differently? You have the power to change your life for the better.
Maybe you’re still in need of ideas, so here’s another prompt: if money and time weren’t an issue, what natural experience would you like to do? Would you hike in Hawaii? Camp in a forest? Grow exotic houseplants? Or just have a beautiful little garden in which to sit? You’re only bound by your imagination.
Making Sense of the Memories
Now, from all that you’ve written, circle the words describing positive feelings. Like “enjoyed” or “peaceful” or “fun” or “accepted,” etc. Then circle the activities that appeal to you. Maybe it’s kayaking on a placid lake. It could be riding a bike down a country road. Maybe it’s shopping at a plant nursery or puttering among tomato plants.
Next, put those feelings and activities together and see if you can create a mission statement. Like I want to [nature activity] so I can feel [positive emotions]. This is what will guide you going forward.
This may seem like a lot of work but discovering your green personality is key. You need to know how you’d like to spend time in nature in a way that’s right for you! And once you have your mission statement, you’ll never be confused. You’ll have a north star to guide you on your journey toward stress relief and a green wellness practice.
If you want more information on that practice, you can buy Leaf Your Troubles Behind, or watch my upcoming webinar, available in April, 2023.
I’m a big advocate of journaling. Writing out one’s thoughts and feelings has enormous health benefits and helps us work out the problems of our lives. Psychologists say it helps reduce stress, boosts our mood, keeps our memory sharp, and even helps our immune system. So what’s even more interesting is how journaling in nature seems to be more powerful. Here’s why.
It puts you in a special, out-of-time place
Even if I journal in my backyard, I’ve taken myself out of the usual, day-to-day equation of work and my to-do lists. In nature, there are no to-do lists because nature simply exists to be what it is. So I find when I’m immersed in nature, I start to simply exist to be what I am too. I feel freer to allow my thoughts to wander and land on whatever topics they’re drawn to.
It heightens your observational skills
When we’re outside, we encounter a whole landscape of random sounds, sights, smells, and all else. It’s not the controlled atmosphere of an indoor environment where we’ve set the temperature and lighting. When we go into nature, we’re subjecting our bodies to a whole suite of stimuli to process. That stimuli heightens our awareness, which heightens our ability to observe and record our surroundings.
It increases mindfulness
Because our senses our heightened and our awareness is more alert, our ability to be mindful of our experience increases. We can smell that pine tree, see how softly the leaves wave in the breeze, hear a bird tweeting, touch the roughness of a rock, and so on. And so, because we’re more in the “here and now,” our attention begins to block out thoughts of the past or future. Our thoughts and feelings simplify, which helps us cope with whatever’s troubling us.
It lowers stress
And so, because our attention is more present and more focused on our immediate surroundings, we relax more quickly. We turn still and silent. There are no advertisements wanting something from us, no social media to make us feel anger or angst, no traffic getting in our way. The random wild thoughts zinging through our head weaken and a deeper sense of restfulness blossoms. That, in turn, reduces our heart rate and lowers our blood pressure, creating a soothing feeling of peace.
It creates more curiosity
If you’re journaling indoors, you may be in your home or a local cafe. This means you know your surroundings well. But when journaling in nature, you may notice a woodland flower you’ve never noticed before, or wonder about the lake you’re sitting beside. These features of nature may create questions. What is that flower? How deep is that lake? And the more curious you become, the more you’ll learn, thus feeding your mind and creating a tiny sense of accomplishment that boosts confidence.
I’ve found journaling in nature relaxes me much more than when I journal in my home. Even if I’m working out angsty problems that relate to my day-to-day work and life, I’m less sucked in emotionally by it. I gain a useful, detached perspective that serves me well when I go back in. Plus, whatever insights or conclusions I’ve gained feel like icing on the cake. And that in turn, makes me feel more grateful for the life I have.
Do you ever journal in nature? If you do, let me know how! I’m always looking for ideas.
Now that I’ve started a gratitude journal, I’ve been worried that its effects may wear off after a while. If I repeat myself regularly, I may lose the quality of happiness I’ll feel when counting my blessings. I mean, how many times can you feel grateful for a spouse, child, pet, etc?
The Various Approaches
So I did a little research. A super helpful article in Greater Good Magazine talks about the various techniques for getting the most bang for your blessings buck. They advise to go deep in your entries, elaborating on your grateful experiences with a lot of details. This makes sense as the more you imagine and relive the situation you’re grateful for, the better you’ll feel. Also, they advise focusing on people, what your life would be like without the thing you’re grateful for, and recording surprising events.
The Various Benefits
I also discovered that the scientific studies conducted by psychologist Robert A. Emmons showed people getting a plethora of psychological benefits. These included more restful sleep, lower blood pressure, higher alertness, and more willingness to connect with others. Other benefits surfaced as well. All provable and data driven. If you’d like to read an easy overview of the science, check out this article from the University of California at Davis.
The One Most Effective Thing You Can Do
Also, in my research I learned that the most important thing you can do to create an effective gratitude journal was not what I’d guessed. It’s much simpler and obvious. And that is to only journal once or twice a week. Studies show that those who wrote in the journal three times or more a week, lost the psychological benefits. The mind adjusted to the positive events too quickly and they lost their positive impact. Subjects became numb to the happiness. Interesting, huh.
I was actually happy to read this because in truth I’m kind of lax with journals and don’t trust myself to log in what I’m grateful for every day anyway. Hee.
So if you’re like I am and want an excuse to journal every week rather than every day, gratitude journaling may be the path for you too.
An Inspirational Book
During this process, I’ve been thinking of the poet Ross Gay. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, sings with beautiful verse about all that is difficult and painful and unjust and yet worthwhile in this wild thing we call life. I highly recommend it for inspiration!
As we get into the new year, I’ve decided to start a gratitude journal. I’m not sure why, I just had an impulse. But I think the impulse comes from where I was at the end of last year. In late fall, the press I published The Forgetting Flower through, went on indefinite hiatus due to the publisher’s medical issues. That hurt. Then, a close loved one was in financial trouble, also hard. But I think worst, my dog died. You know how people say, “What’s the matter? You look like your dog just died.” Yeah, well, that was me.
A New Year Brings New Beginnings
Still, despite all that, I knew I still had a good life. I had a supportive husband, three great kids, and three sweet animals. I had a house and a garden and enough money. Once, I started mentally listing what I did have, I felt better.
Buddhist philosophers believe that to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have creates happiness. When you focus on what you want, you will suffer. It’s such a simple concept and yet so true. Modern psychological tests back this up. People who focus on what they’re grateful for are happier than those who don’t. I realized I was grateful for what I had but needed to keep better track of those blessings. Like in writing. So I wouldn’t take them for granted.
Artifacts That Spark Joy
I procrastinated getting the journal because I wasn’t sure if I should use my old Ideas & Journal notebook for this or a fresh notebook. And what kind? A composition book? A beautifully bound journal? Something recyclable? Before I knew it, I was paralyzed by the indecision that came with finding the silly notebook that I needed to start. So I left the task alone.
Then, the other day, I went to my local garden nursery. While shopping for a pot for a houseplant, I noticed a basket on display. It had several small journals inside, all decorated on the outside with plants. One even had the leaves of tropical plants and they’re accompanying botanical names. The cover was beautiful. And without a plastic or glossy cover, it was recyclable. Boom! Done!
I’d found the pure inspiration I’d needed at a plant nursery. Of course, I did. It was almost too predictable. But in the end, a regular notebook would have worked. Even a bunch of paper stapled together. The physical object doesn’t really matter that much, does it?
How to Create a Gratitude Journal
As my first entry I wrote that I was grateful for garden nurseries and botanical journals that had drawings of plant leaves with accompanying Latin names. My second was the thanks I felt for my family. The third was for having a good place to live. But from then on, where did I go? I didn’t want to just repeat the same things over and over again.
I wanted to go deeper, get more detailed. Get in touch with what was happening in my life. So I looked around the interwebs and found this great article from Shutterfly. It has an outstanding list of prompts to get your thoughts flowing. Like: Pick a random photo and write about why you’re grateful for that memory. Or: List three people who helped you through a tough situation.
I like the idea of mining my memories and experiences for detailed imaginative material
Getting Acquainted With Gratitude
Keeping this journal is still new to my life. I’m not really a self-help type. However, I’ve found articulating what is so good about my life makes me instantly and extremely happy. Despite our political situation in the U.S., I still have a lot to be grateful for. And that gratitude super-charges my soul so that I can be available and present to others. That may be the best gift out of this whole endeavor.
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I’ve always thought keeping a journal meant writing long passages of insight about your life and its meaning, a diary a la Anais Nin or The Artist’s Way that someday after you die would reveal who you secretly were. I’ve tried to do this in the past but it never stuck. But after reading Show Your Work, I’ve realized that keeping a journal is the opposite. It can be disjointed, messy, inspired, and mundane. It’s a reflection of the nonlinear mind, of the creative journey. Like a painting of thoughts, ideas, notes, and even drawings, its bits and pieces coalesce to form its beauty.