Here's why spending time alone in the wilderness is good for your mental health

Bison roaming free in South Dakota. Image: Getty.

Today Americans and other westerners live in a world that thrives on being busy, productive and overscheduled. Further, they have developed the technological means to be constantly connected to others and to vast options for information and entertainment through social media. For many, smartphones demand their attention day and night with constant notifications.

As a result, naturally occurring periods of solitude and silence that were once commonplace have been squeesed out of their lives. Music, reality TV shows, YouTube, video games, tweeting and texting are displacing quiet and solitary spaces. Silence and solitude are increasingly viewed as “dead” or “unproductive” time, and being alone makes many people uncomfortable and anxious.

But while some equate solitude with loneliness, there is a big difference between being lonely and being alone. The latter is essential for mental health and effective leadership.

We study and teach outdoor education and related fields at several colleges and organizations in North Carolina, through and with other scholars at 2nd Nature TREC, a training, research, education and consulting firm. We became interested in the broader implications of alone time after studying intentionally designed solitude experiences during wilderness programs, such as those run by Outward Bound. Our findings reveal that time alone in nature is beneficial for many participants in a variety of ways, and is something they wish they had more of in their daily life.

On an average day in 2015, individuals aged 15 and over spent more than half of their leisure time watching TV. Image: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans Time Use Survey.

Reflection and challenge

We have conducted research for almost two decades on Outward Bound and undergraduate wilderness programs at Montreat College in North Carolina and Wheaton College in Illinois. For each program, we studied participants’ experiences using multiple methods, including written surveys, focus group interviews, one-on-one interviews and field notes. In some cases, we asked subjects years later to look back and reflect on how the programmes had affected them. Among other questions, our research looked at participant perceptions of the value of solo time outdoors.

Our studies showed that people who took part in these programs benefited both from the outdoor settings and from the experience of being alone. These findings build on previous research that has clearly demonstrated the value of spending time in nature.

Scholars in fields including wilderness therapy and environmental psychology have shown that time outdoors benefits our lives in many ways. It has a therapeutic effect, relieves stress and restores attention. Alone time in nature can have a calming effect on the mind because it occurs in beautiful, natural and inspirational settings.

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Spending time in city parks like Audubon Park in New Orleans provides some of the same benefits as time in wilderness areas, including reduced stress levels and increased energy levels. Image: InSapphoWeTrust/Wikimedia Commons.

Nature also provides challenges; that spur individuals to creative problem-solving and increased self-confidence. For example, some find that being alone in the outdoors, particularly at night, is a challenging situation. Mental, physical and emotional challenges in moderation encourage personal growth that is manifested in an increased comfort with one’s self in the absence of others.


Being alone also can have great value. It can allow issues to surface that people spend energy holding at bay, and offer an opportunity to clarify thoughts, hopes, dreams and desires. It provides time and space for people to step back, evaluate their lives and learn from their experiences. Spending time this way prepares them to re-engage with their community relationships and full work schedules.

Putting it together

Participants in programmed wilderness expeditions often experience a component known as “Solo,” a time of intentional solitude lasting approximately 24-72 hours. Extensive research; has been conducted on solitude in the outdoors because many wilderness education programmes have embraced the educational value of solitude and silence.

Solo often emerges as one of the most significant parts of wilderness programs, for a variety of reasons. Alone time creates a contrasting experience to normal living that enriches people mentally, physically and emotionally. As they examine themselves in relation to nature, others, and in some cases, God, people become more attuned to the important matters in their lives and in the world of which they are part.

Solo, an integral part of Outward Bound wilderness trips, can last from a few hours to 72 hours. The experience is designed to give participants an opportunity to reflect on their own thoughts and critically analyse their actions and decisions.

Solitary reflection enhances recognition and appreciation of key personal relationships, encourages reorganization of life priorities, and increases appreciation for alone time, silence, and reflection. People learn lessons they want to transfer to their daily living, because they have had the opportunity to clarify, evaluate and redirect themselves by setting goals for the future.

For some participants, time alone outdoors provides opportunity to consider the spiritual and/or religious dimension of life. Reflective time, especially in nature, often enhances spiritual awareness and makes people feel closer to God. Further, it encourages their increased faith and trust in God. This often occurs through providing ample opportunities for prayer, meditation, fasting, Scripture-reading, journaling and reflection time.


Retreating to lead

As Thomas Carlyle has written, “In (solitary) silence, great things fashion themselves together.” Whether these escapes are called alone time, solitude or Solo, it seems clear that humans experience many benefits when they retreat from the “rat race” to a place apart and gather their thoughts in quietness.

In order to live and lead effectively, it is important to be intentional about taking the time for solitary reflection. Otherwise, gaps in schedules will always fill up, and even people with the best intentions may never fully realise the life-giving value of being alone.

Brad Daniel, Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College; Andrew Bobilya, Associate Professor and Program Director of Parks and Recreation Management, Western Carolina University, and Ken Kalisch, Associate Professor of Outdoor Education, Montreat College.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.