Connection is a word that I didn't previously think too much about. We use it in different contexts to describe the practical and even relational links between two or more different things or people. Now, I think about the word "connection" as one of the most important words to consider, especially as it related to the concept of wellness. This is part one of a multi-part essay, highlighting the importance of connections that result in individual and collective well-being and to a small degree how photographing the landscape has helped or can help along the path to connecting. In a sense, the essay really isn't so much about photography, but wellness. We'll walk through some ideas around the importance of connecting to nature, to self and creativity, and to each other. Connections which we have largely lost.
Before we turn our attention to connecting to nature, let's take a side track to consider a related idea or two. For the past 30 years or so, I've been working as a career counselor and job search coach. I got into the profession because I had the notion that career, and our connection with it, was really important and that quality of work life has a profound impact on our overall quality of life, or wellness. This isn't a novel idea, of course, it's common sense after all, right? But, I don't think we very often consider or understand the consequences, especially long-term, of being disconnected from meaningful work. And, it's beyond clear, that being disconnected from meaningful work has far reaching negative consequences. But here's something I want you to read, then stop and think about for a minute before you read on....Around 70% of US employees are disengaged from their work and around 85% of employees worldwide are disengaged from their work (from recent Gallup surveys). Does that surprise you? Probably not, but have you thought about the implications? What I've seen, over the years, is that most people who are not connected to some form of meaningful work suffer from anxiety, depression and will likely have distress in their relational life--at a minimum. It's not a stretch to say that when you are disengaged from one part of your identity/life, it might be quite difficult to engage elsewhere. In other words, if you are disconnected in one significant way, it becomes difficult to connect in other important areas of life. Anxiety and depression also have a ripple effect. And this is the overarching point, when humans are disconnected in multiple significant ways, we suffer. But, if we can somehow learn to reconnect, we have a chance to return or create more wellness, for ourselves and each other.
Many of the pieces to the puzzle of disconnection you'll find in a recent book written by Johann Hari. The title is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression-and the Unexpected Solutions. This book, more than any single source I've seen, highlights the multiple ways in which we are disconnected, the consequences, and the strategies for reconnection. My own belief is that the problem is widespread (we're disconnected in even more ways than described in the book) and is at the root of so many of our present challenges, at least in the modern, developed world. A second puzzle piece that I can recommend is where we're headed next, a book by Florence Williams called The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. I would strongly encourage you to check out both of these books, form your own opinions and continue your journey toward living well.
So let's switch back to nature for a minute. Here's another number I'd like you to think about for just a bit. The average American spends 90% of their time indoors. Let me repeat that, 90% of your time is spent indoors, if you're the typical American. Around 2o years ago, a friend and work colleague looked at me and said, "you know humans were't created to live in a box". Just a casual comment, I think, but I've never forgotten that. It had never occurred to me before, just how much time we spend "in the box" and certainly hadn't considered the implications. We've known for a while the effects of sunlight and exercise on anxiety and depression, as potential tools to prevent or help manage these maladies. But now, there is a growing avalanche of science to demonstrate the positive effects of reconnecting to nature and spending time outdoors. Please read the Nature Fix to delve into the details. Consider first though, how much time you actually spend inside and how this might be impacting you. Typically, we live in a box, drive/ride to work in a metal box, work in a box for 8-12 hours a day, drive back home in the metal box and maybe if we have time, go exercise in a box. That alone will drive any human crazy.
Science though, tells us to do just the opposite. We know that spending time near blue spaces (lakes, rivers, oceans) improves overall happiness. "Forest bathing" is a strategy that is used in Japan to lower stress, and guess what, science shows that it works! Natural environments lower cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure, helping us to lower our stress levels. Studies have also shown that spending time in nature can also boost creativity. Exercise in general has been proven to increase mental sharpness, especially as we age. Sunshine, is good for your mood among other things. The list goes on.
But here's the big one...technology...and yes I know...I'm writing this and you're reading this using technology...Here's what we know. Technology is rewiring our brains, literally. Our attention spans have dwindled. Our social skills have diminished. Social media has its positives but it cannot replace the authentic, personal connections that we've been missing. Think about how often you check your smart phone or maybe try to monitor how much you spend in front of some type of screen. The average American spends...10 hours a day in front of a screen...Spending time in nature is just one strategy, but an important one, to get unplugged from technology. Of course, you can take smart phones, etc, into the backcountry but if you're looking for ways to unplug from the distraction of technology, time in nature is at least a starting point.
Nature also gives a chance at solitude. More on this in a part two of the essay but it has to be mentioned here. How much time do you spend actually thinking, reflecting, and processing your thoughts and feelings rather than simply reacting? Again, for a whole host of reasons, some of which are mentioned above, we've become disconnected from ourselves. On the surface, this seems confounding. How could we become disconnected from ourselves? The reality is that we spend almost all, if not all, of our waking hours working or taking input through technology and if we're lucky, actually interacting a little with other humans. But where is the time for self? Usually nonexistent. Being disconnected from yourself (thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, etc.) simply means that you're just passing through life, not living it intentionally or with thoughtfulness. All this to say that spending time in nature, can be a really valuable practice to reconnect with self and to wellness. We desperately need solitude...in order to reconnect...ironic, but true.
Having trouble sleeping? You're not alone. The CDC data suggest that 30% of Americans sleep less than 6 hours a day. Many reasons for that, of course. My guess is that sleep deprivation is much more wide spread and profoundly problematic than we currently know. Studies link lack of sleep to depression, weaker immune system, memory loss, and who knows what we'll discover down the road. It's also quite obvious that lack of sleep gives us less capacity to manage our emotions and relationships. How does this relate to nature? Again, it's a screentime problem for most of us and spending too much time indoors. Getting back outside, away from screens, in natural light, and doing something physically challenging can help with getting sleep cycles back on track.
Finally, as it relates to connecting with nature, there is the possibility for adventure and exploration. Part of the human experience is some amount of hardwired need for adventure. This will mean different things to all of us, but usually involves exploring new places, especially in nature. Humans have been exploring as long as we have evidence of humans. There is not a lot of adventure and exploration to be had, living and working in boxes. Explorers and adventure athletes that push the extreme of human ability in natural areas are often asked why they pursue such activities that often involve a high level of risk. The response is that they usually feel most "alive" in the midst of these adventures. Certainly this doesn't mean that we all need to take up rock climbing or big wave surfing but adventure is an element to be found in nature that can lead to a stronger sense of purpose and well-being.
So, what in the world does all of this have to do with photography, and landscape photography in particular? Photographing the landscape gets us back outside, in nature, and certainly can help us to unplug. It's hard to connect to anything meaningful if we are lost in the haze of being constantly tethered to technology. Being in the landscape brings or can provide real adventure, exploring wilderness areas and pushing beyond comfort zones. There is the physical fitness and exercise component and the time and space created for solitude. Yes, solitude may be a little more difficult to find, in certain places, but with a little planning there are tons of places far from the well known areas that attract the crowds. It also helps us reconnect to self. If you're photographing for artistic reasons then at some point, you have to reflect on what to say and what you're feeling before you can communicate it through art. This isn't some kind of narrative argument attempting to say that landscape photography is a cure for all our disconnectedness. It is to say that my own personal journey through photographing the landscape has at least helped me understand my own disconnections and set me back on the path to well-being. Photographing the landscape is a least one starting point...in getting connected.
"Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature's darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, 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 off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature's sources never fail." -John Muir