The idea of driving across the country to visit my older sister in New Jersey had seemed like a great idea at the time. My younger sister and I loaded up my car and started the journey excitedly. We left the desert southwest and drove across several states, encountering unexpected challenges along the way. First, a torrential downpour, followed by unexpected road construction that slowed us down considerably. Then we took several wrong turns in Memphis and lost time attempting to find our way back onto the highway. We blamed each other for not having better navigation skills. Little did we know that we were about to discover how to find joy in nature.
By the time we pulled into the parking lot of the motel in Knoxville, Tennessee, we were both questioning our decision to drive instead of fly. We felt even more exhausted, hungry and irritable after having to switch motel rooms, when the first seemed to be consumed with a mysterious smell. I just wanted to collapse on the bed, but my sister suggested we take a walk to clear our heads. Motivated by hunger, we set out across the motel parking lot in search of a restaurant.
Finding Unexpected Joy in Nature
As we walked, I noticed sparks coming up from a patch of grass in the distance. ‘What is that?! I asked my sister. ‘I don’t know!’ she responded just as mystified. I wondered if there was a small fire in the grass and started walking toward it. My exhausted mind had difficulty trying to determine what I was seeing, as I realized it was not a fire but something else. As we grew closer my sister gasped and shouted ‘fireflies!’ We both lit up with excitement and ran to inspect the bright little insects. We danced and shouted as we chased the fireflies around the patch of grass. I suddenly felt a sheer sense of joy. We laughed as we imagined how silly we must look, two grown woman chasing fireflies and shouting with glee.
Seeing fireflies for the first time is one of my favorite examples of discovering joy in nature. But I actually find that it happens quite often. Last week I was feeling unusually frustrated after a day of attempting to connect with others online. I stepped outside into the cool evening air to water my plants. As I mindlessly watered a small pink rosebush, I ruminated on all the frustrations of the day. Then suddenly my eye caught sight of movement, as I realized that a toad had jumped out from under the bush and landed right next to my big toe. I squealed with delight as I bent down to take another look. ‘It’s a toad!’ I shouted. My mind instantly shifted away from the frustrations of the day and I felt an immediate sense of joy.
How Small Surprises in Nature Lead to Feelings of Joy
Two days later, as I was sitting on my couch taking a lunch break, I experienced another moment of joy. Seeing movement out of the corner of my eye, I looked out my window and saw a road runner perched on my wall. I ran to the window in time to get a close look before he sped down the wall to chase after a lizard. I again felt a moment of surprise and joy. And today, as I was writing this, I looked out the window and saw a hummingbird darting back and forth. He seemed to pause and take a moment to greet me before heading on his way. I immediately smiled.
Usually when I write about nature I’m thinking about the benefits of trees and water, and I often forget about the critters. But they too can lead to an increase in positive feelings, helping us to overcome depression and anxiety. Ingrid Lee, in her book Joyful, discusses how the element of surprise can lead to feelings of joy. She suggests that joy has a way of showing up when we least expect it, as tiny moments capture our attention and turn our thoughts in a joyful direction. According to psychologist Paul Eckman, the function of surprise is to focus our attention so we can determine what is happening and whether we are in danger or not.
Joyful Surprises Can Help Us Feel Less Anxious and Depressed
When we see movement, there is a brief moment when the fight or flight response becomes engaged. It is warning us in case we need to respond. But when we realize that what we are seeing is not a threat, it immediately releases the fight or flight response, leading to a feeling of happiness and joy. Being surprised is similar to experiencing a sense of awe. And a sense of awe causes us to stop our thoughts and redirect our attention. Joyful surprises bring our attention away from ourselves and back into the world. Finding small surprises in nature can create a sense of awe, which leads to better mental health.
Spending time in nature greatly increases our chances of becoming surprised. Even in urban areas, it is generally easy to spot movement from birds or squirrels. Taking the time to slow down might lead to discovering something as joyful as a small toad. Or a rabbit crossing our path. And this in turn, will help us to step away from thoughts that might lead to feeling anxious, depressed or overwhelmed and bring us a moment of joy.
Sources and Suggested Readings:
Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee