Common sense—and solid scientific evidence—recognizes the benefits of spending time in nature.
John Muir, the well-known American naturalist, called readers into nature with his captivating 1894 book, The Mountains of California. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he wrote. “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
How much time in nature is actually needed to notice a difference in oneself? According to one study, just five hours per month is sufficient to improve mood, vitality, and feelings of relaxation (Williams 2017). Moreover, time in nature can be spent in a city park as easily as in a forest, beach, mountain, desert, or grassy plain.
Why is this so important? Because modern populations are often cooped inside buildings or homes. A 2016 survey by The National Trust in the United Kingdom found that almost 50% of preschoolers lacked regular outdoor play sessions while older children, aged ten to sixteen, spent only thirteen minutes a day on vigorous outdoor activity.
The modern world’s sedentary lifestyle stands in contrast to those seen throughout human history, where people lived and worked outdoors in nature.
Nature, the Ultimate Restorative
It shouldn’t be a surprise that spending a beautiful day outside, among trees, birds, flowers, and perhaps gently flowing water, can increase happiness and a sense of well-being.
Harvard naturalist E. O. Wilson is one of many scientists who has hypothesized that nature has a restorative power over people (Wilson 2009). He noted that we have a natural affiliation with nature that is ingrained in our biological heritage. Phrased more poetically, the pioneering environmentalist Rachel Carson wrote (Carson 1962):
Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. ... There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
‘Forest Bathing’ and Other ‘Connectedness’ Activities
In the Seiwa Prefectural Forests of Japan, city residents practice shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which means taking in the forest air on long walks. Forest bathing became popular in Japan in the 1980s and today is a recognized preventive health-care practice. One research study measuring the physiological effects of forest bathing on 280 young adults concluded: “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress), lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.”
Such immersions in nature have also been proven to bring a host of psychological benefits, as people engage in fewer negative emotions and less self-referential thinking.
In addition to nature immersion, there are ways to practice “connectedness.”
We can set aside time for mindfulness meditation, journaling, or doing a body-scan or emotional scan. There are relationship-type practices of connectedness, such as loving-kindness meditation, gratitude practice, and appreciative inquiry. Also, there are practices that connect us to God or the transcendent, which include prayer and spiritual reflection.
On a personal note, I consider this a distinct category in my research and teaching—a way to be more connected and whole as a human being. This connectedness and wholeness can take either the form of observing—in a focused way—flora or fauna in nature, or a more immersive experience, where you go into nature and just allows yourself to be present in it.
A hypothesis of my research—together with colleagues for six to seven years now—is that people who experience a greater sense of connection to nature are more likely to care for others and future generations.
It also changes people's behavior, as will be explained shortly.
There are many studies that show the benefits of nature connectedness. One study, a meta-analysis, examined “nature connectedness” and “happiness” across a great number of different studies and found a statistically significant correlation. While a relationship or correlation does not imply causation, in this case, the findings show that, generally speaking, more time in nature is associated with a greater sense of happiness and well-being.
Highly recommended books on the subject are Richard Louv’s The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and, more recently, The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams.
Physics Reveals Connection, Not Absence
Physics is in some ways the most fundamental of the sciences in describing the behavior of the world. Physics, for much of the last 300 years, has been based on the concepts of particles and forces. Actually, the idea of atoms seen as separate particles in empty space goes all the way back to Greek philosophers like Democritus, who first came up with the term atomos in Greek.
The figure below shows an illustration of two atoms, with their protons and neutrons in the nucleus, and electrons spinning around them at great distances from them, and the atoms are somehow separated in empty space. In such models, the only forces acting on them are gravity, electromagnetic fields, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.
That was the paradigm of the science that many people grew up with. However, quantum physics in particular is giving rise to a new idea that, in fact, at the most infinitesimal level of the universe, there is a connected and coherent unified field, a field of energy and information that connects everything (above right). Rather than thinking about space as being a vacuum, space, in fact, is a plenum (full). It is now known that the universe contains dark matter, dark energy, and gravitational waves. Along with these fields of energy, vibrational fields of energy connect everything, not just metaphorically—but actually.
Quantum physicists speak about objects or living systems as excitations of the quantum field, which is now a proven domain. Experiments such as the double-slit experiment, as well as Bell's theorem experiment (see below), show this interdependence and describe fundamental reality.
Bell's theorem experiment was a way to examine the behavior of paired particles. The figure above shows a Source that generates particles V1 and V2, which are paired in the sense of having the same wave phase. Once they are paired, they are shot off in opposite directions to crystal A and crystal B, each of which has a mirror in it. Each mirror has a 50% chance of shooting the particle up and 50% chance of shooting the particle down.
This experiment has shown that paired particles that are shot out remain paired even across great distances. Thus, if V1 and V2 are paired, and if V1 hits crystal A and goes up (+1), then V2 (shot out at the same time) will hit crystal B and also go up (+1). This can be repeated tens of thousands of times, as this is what the coincidences detector shows, and you will never once find the case in which paired particles emerging from the crystals go in opposite directions. This includes cases in which V1 goes up and V2 goes down (-1) or the reverse, with V2 going up and V1 going down. This is what quantum physicists call entanglement, not nonlocality, and it can happen across very great distances.
Considering a person’s relationship with nature at this most fundamental level, it is a relationship of oneness.
That degree of instant correlation, holding over very great distances, suggests that it happens faster than the speed of light. Thus, Erwin Schrödinger, one of the early great quantum physicists, concluded that quantum physics reveals a basic oneness of the universe. This is important because, considering a person’s relationship with nature at this most fundamental level, it is a relationship of oneness.
There are other sciences, such as epigenetics, that show that it is not only genes that determine things such as life expectancy and disease, but also a person’s relationship with nature. What that relationship is, whether exposed to pollution or to healthy nature, affects the proteins that wrap the genes and lead to gene expression, either good or bad.
Finally, from the nineteenth century onward, the rise of Darwinism and then Neo-Darwinism, as well as the economics of William Stanley Jevons and John Stuart Mill, led us to believe that human beings were essentially selfish, competitive, and separate—what the existentialist called the “bounded human being.”
However, we are more recently starting to see that there are, in fact, lessons from nature by which we can better understand human nature as relational, cooperative, and connected.
Consciousness also is undergoing an interesting controversy, with physicalist theory versus universal field theory. Physicalist theory maintains that we generate consciousness just inside our brain, like a supercomputer, while universal field theory suggests that consciousness is actually a property of the universe that we can tap into.
Thus, our brains are almost instruments that tap or tune into a universal consciousness through microtubular lattices (see the figure below), and there is good scientific research emerging on this.
All of the science now tends to converge with spiritual traditions. For example, in the teachings of the Vedanta from the Hindu tradition, or Vedic tradition, starting with the Rig Vedas and then the Upanishads, there has always been this idea of “Brahma,” the background field from which the manifest universe comes.
Native American traditions consider human beings as relatives of animals and plants. “All My Relatives” refers to how a Native American would see a rabbit or fox or even a tree.
In Africa, you have Ubuntu, the idea that “I am who I am because of who we all are.” In China, Japan, and elsewhere, we have Taoism (Daoism), the notion that there is the “Way” (Dao) and that in practice we can become one with the Way. In Buddhism as well, he who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings and all beings in his own Self. Then, you have Ein Sof, which is an ancient symbol from the Kabbalah, an early thread in Judaism, that also has this notion of an ineffable background to the reality you experience.
Consciousness and Connectedness
In conclusion, many people see the world as made up of separate objects, like separate vortices in a river. The image below shows a river in which vortex A and vortex B seem stable and separate, as if they have their own structure in time and space.
But perhaps a better way to see them is how they are merging dynamically in the river. David Bohm, the quantum physicist, called it “undivided wholeness in flowing movement.”
The benefits of connecting to nature are shown by contemporary research. These include overall health improvement; stress relief; reduced negative emotions, such as decreased fear and anger; enhanced positive effects; improvements in mood and increased subjective well-being; feelings of joy and happiness; a sense of reconnection with self; kinship ties in teams; a heightened sense of community, kinship, egalitarianism, and belongingness, along with increased empathy (Florence 2017); a stronger sense of place; and improved cognitive abilities, including creativity, cognitive flow, and mental performance in problem solving.
Connecting to nature also increases personal well-being.
It can raise awareness of how our actions impact others, and it can transform people and leaders, in particular, by increasing their emotional, social, and spiritual intelligence. It can increase entrepreneurial creativity and collaboration, and perhaps, very importantly at this time in human history, can strengthen pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors.
In the business courses I teach on flourishing enterprise, it is becoming clear that flourishing in business requires both a strong financial business case and behavioral change, and that the consciousness of connectedness—including a consciousness and connectedness to nature—are central to lasting behavioral change.
The content above draws on selected works of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, John Archibald Wheeler, Erwin Schrödinger, Wolfgang Pauli, David Bohm, Richard Feynman, Werner Heisenberg, and Max Planck. It benefits greatly from pioneers who sought to integrate quantum physics and philosophy: David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980), Ken Wilber’s Quantum Questions (1984); Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Sciences (1994); Ervin Laszlo’s The Interconnected Universe (1995) and The Self-Actualizing Cosmos (2014); among others. I owe a further debt to Paul Levy’s Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality (2018), Lothar Schäfer’s Infinite Potential: What Quantum Physics Reveals About How We Should Live (2013), and Allan Combs’ Consciousness Explained Better: Towards an Integral Understanding of the Multifaceted Nature of Consciousness (2009).
Revisiting these works were part of a broader research program on Quantum Leadership at Case Western Reserve University, starting in 2014 and funded by the businessman and philanthropist Fred Chavalit Tsao. Extensive field research led to our book, Quantum Leadership: New Consciousness in Business, published by Stanford University Press in 2019.
*Chris Laszlo is Professor of Organizational Behavior, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, USA. He researches and teaches flourishing enterprise and is the co-founder of Sustainable Value Partners, USA.
This article was adapted from a presentation by Prof. Laszlo at the Third International Conference on Science and God, a virtual meeting held in April 2022.