Pictured: Alan with a group at Hazel Hill Wood.
Recorded levels of stress have grown a lot in recent years, and we’re seeing evidence of more stress in all age groups. One of the best antidotes is an approach I’ve evolved, called Natural Happiness: it’s a range of ways to learn from Nature and in Nature which can really improve your wellbeing.
Life these days is so complex that we need models and parallels to learn from. You might think there are useful comparisons with systems like computers or cars, but human nature is far subtler. People are organisms: constantly changing, and with interactions between physical, emotional, and mental aspects. A better parallel is cultivated natural eco-systems: farms, gardens or forests, where rules of nature apply, but people are shaping nature to achieve the outcomes they want. For over 20 years, I have been exploring what people can learn from these parallels for their life and work.
I never set out to become a pioneer in the parallels between natural ecosystems and people’s wellbeing and resilience, but it has turned out that way. Nature has been a huge comfort and refuge for me ever since my unhappy teenage years, but the real catalyst for Natural Happiness came in 1989, when I felt a calling to create a major learning-based centre, using some of the capital I’d made from a successful business venture. Fuelled by excitement, determination and naive ignorance of what I was getting into, within a year I had set up an education charity, and we had bought a run down 130-acre farm in West Dorset. Ten years turning this into a flourishing mixed organic farm and innovative education centre is what taught me about organic cultivation from the roots up.
Time in Nature is an antidote to screen world
A lot of valuable research has come out in recent years exploring the causes of stress, and the antidotes. The book, Your Brain on Nature, by Ella Selhub and Alan Logan, is especially helpful. They cite evidence of the effects on our physiology of so many hours on screens: for example, the way this keeps us in a state of alertness and makes it harder to relax. Your Brain on Nature also provides ample research evidence that the best antidote to screen world is time out in Nature: this has an inherently calming and uplifting effect, and helps us physically in many ways.
Learning from Nature
My Natural Happiness approach includes time out in nature as a key element, but goes further, showing how we can use analogies from the natural world as a guide to our human nature. Composting is one example.
Composting our waste
The beauty of any natural cycle is that there is no waste: every output becomes the input to the next stage of the cycle. In a wood, dead leaves rot down to enrich the soil. An organic farmer composts both animal manure and plant waste to create a major source of future fertility, and this is a key to improving soil condition whilst increasing outputs.
Where is the waste in your life and work that has energy and value? Think about negative feelings like anxiety, or conflicts and failures. Waste is usually messy: it takes new skills to collect and recycle it, but it can be done. For example, negative feelings can become a source of fresh understanding and constructive energy: both for you personally and in your relations with others. A key resilience skill is handling conflicts with other people. This is another example of composting: if conflicts are faced and processed, they can generate growth and learning.
Sustaining inspiration and positive perspective really matters when we have to face so much complexity, uncertainty, and the troubles of the wider world. Nature is a great ally in this, especially linked with methods like Mindfulness: it can help us relax, expand, and see different perspectives.
I lead groups on Natural Happiness at Hazel Hill Wood, the 70-acre centre I’ve helped set up near Salisbury. We offer programmes for individuals, work teams and community organisations. What I see repeatedly is that getting outside in a beautiful wood immediately helps people to relax, to drop some stress, and start to get fresh insights on issues which are worrying them.
Life as a garden: local, natural, personal
Keeping your life more like a garden is a good antidote to the impersonal artificiality of ‘screen world’. Gardeners celebrate progress, compost their failures, and realise that the process is a big part of the product. In other words, the love and care we put into everyday life and work can really nourish our happiness and other people’s
Many of the ‘outputs’ from a garden are intangible, yet deeply valuable: it helps to see our life this way, and especially to value the quality of our connections to people and nature. Gardeners give more attention to the journey, the here and now, than to the destination, and they are happier for it