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You don’t have to climb a mountain for a “peak experience” in nature to be life-changing

Why for some people can a single, brief “peak experience” change their view of themselves or their relationships with others?

05 July 2017

By Emma Young

We're all familiar with the idea that nature can be psychologically uplifting. But for some people, a single, brief "peak experience" in a natural setting, lasting mere seconds or minutes, changes their view of themselves or their relationships with others so profoundly that their lives are positively transformed as a result. A new study in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology explores exactly how and why this happens. The researchers LIa Naor and Ofra Mayseless at the University of Haifa, Israel, advertised on the internet for people who felt they'd had a transformative experience in nature to get in touch for an interview. "It was not difficult to find participants; in fact many people replied and were eager to share their experience," they wrote.

The volunteers – five men and ten women, aged 28 to 70 – came from a range of lifestyles, from farms, cities and communal settlements, and different countries, including Argentina, America and Israel. Naor asked them to describe their transformative experience in detail, and to focus on their perceptions and interpretations of what happened.

While all participants said they'd had a profound experience in nature, for three participants, it was not life-changing. Naor and Mayseless contrasted these three with the others to tease out four factors that seemed to be important for a transformation to happen.

First, the natural setting reflected and even embodied a lifelong, significant and challenging personal issue. Second, it was psychologically uncomfortable or painful to recognise this issue. Third, the experience shed new light on ways of dealing with it. And finally, the individual made a conscious choice to embed this new realisation into her identity and life.

Take the case of Hadar, aged 36, who described herself as having been a people-pleaser, always putting others' needs before her own and not really connected to her own needs. On a hiking trip in the desert, she was resting with her group on a ledge. She'd agreed to continue climbing. But "I had this inner conflict because I really didn't want to… but I told everybody I would. I felt so distraught, didn't know what to do…."

This concrete challenge, which she had to confront, led her to realise there was a new way of dealing with this kind of issue. Hadar explains: "All of a sudden I heard myself say enough! This was so new to me because I always did what was expected of me…. I turned my head and saw the view, it was so amazing and I knew I did not have to move…it was that moment of understanding in which I knew that I could change my thinking and understanding of myself and my surroundings…."

And she made a conscious choice to embrace this insight: "That moment was one of the most liberating moments in my life… From that moment on, I was concerned and connected to my needs more than to others. I let go of what people were expecting and was filled with such happiness, unbelievable… this wheel started to turn…I guess the divorce was part of that… I left my job….I took control of my life."

Could this challenge, realisation and transformation have happened in an office instead of a desert? Perhaps it could, but Naor and Mayseless argue that the study reveals the "process elicited by nature as embodying, mirroring, confronting and even pushing one to discover as yet unknown aspects of self." The varied kinds of physical challenges provided in nature call for complete bodily and emotional involvement, so increasing the likelihood of this type of experience, they argue.

It's worth noting that the challenges described in the paper were not necessarily objectively dramatic; Hadar's story would not make for a Hollywood movie. Neither would the story of Tamar, a 48-year-old mother who said she'd always been unable to ask for help – until she found herself stuck, afraid, on a steep descent on a group hike, and realised: "Why do you always think you need to overcome everything on your own…that's it and it's a major issue in my life…."

What really mattered was the meaning of the situation to the individual. While there's plenty of research finding that psychological resilience can be improved by getting people to just-about cope with natural challenges – such as ascending to a mountain peak – the challenges reported in this paper, while triggered by nature, weren't necessarily extreme – and yet they carried huge significance.

If there are general lessons, they're probably these: try to spend time in varied natural settings, be alert to what you're thinking and how you're feeling – and hold on to any insights that you gain.