Don’t knock Donald Trump for playing so much golf. Here’s why | Oliver Burkeman

It really is good that he is out in nature

Spending time in nature, as you’re surely aware by now, is good for your mental health. Like, really, really good. People criticise Donald Trump for whiling away so many hours on golf courses, but they’re wrong: imagine the damage he’d wreak if his rage and repressed self-loathing weren’t offset by the restorative benefits of all that greenery! So there’s nothing intrinsically surprising about a new study, led by Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University, in Cambridge, suggesting that natural environments improve people’s body image; after all, they improve everything. What remains debatable is why. One of the most beguiling answers – first given three decades ago by the US academics Rachel and Stephen Kaplan – is also maybe the most pleasingly named concept in psychology. In a world of relentless, aggressive demands on our attention, the Kaplans argued, nature does something different: it exerts “soft fascination”.

Soft fascination has two crucial components. First, it’s effortless: you don’t need to “try to focus” on the wind in the trees, or a moor top blanketed in heather. Second, it’s partial: it absorbs some attention, but leaves some free for reflection, conversation or mind-wandering. The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet”, in which the muscle of effortful attention – the one you use to concentrate on work – gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why nature’s benefits aren’t restricted to, say, trips to the Grand Canyon or Great Barrier Reef. Those places seize your whole attention, whereas your local park may seize just enough of it to let the rest of your mind relax.

Think about attention like this, and it becomes clear how irresponsibly we usually treat our own supply of it. “To concentrate on a task, you need to block out distractions,” as the design and technology expert Richard Coyne has written – and “once that blocking function gets worn down by fatigue, you are more likely to act on impulse, to shirk tasks that prove too challenging [or] to become irritable.” But all too often, we respond to concentration fatigue by trying to concentrate on something different: email, social media, TV – “things that are more engaging but less challenging”. No wonder that doesn’t work: it’s like taking a rest after lifting dumbbells by lifting different dumbbells. Nature, by contrast, lets us switch modes. To quote Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, it “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquillises it and yet enlivens it”.

There’s plenty of evidence for the soft fascination thesis. But for me, it’s personal experience that makes it ring so true. To listen to some proponents of mindfulness, you might think the best way to engage with nature is being totally immersed in the scenery. Yet anyone who loves hiking knows part of the pleasure is in pondering other matters as you walk, or in meandering conversations – rambling while rambling. Countless famous thinkers – Darwin, Thoreau, Wordsworth – swore by daily walks in nature.. But they were still thinking as they walked.


oliver.burkeman@theguardian.com

Contributor

Oliver Burkeman

The GuardianTramp

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