Do you ever get the feeling that while we’re super-connected digitally, we’re kind of dropping the ball in the real world?
It’s a paradox, isn’t it? In an age of 8 billion humans and counting, feelings of isolation, loneliness, and detachment are skyrocketing. It’s as if we’re hosting the grandest party in history, but everyone’s just standing in their own corners more interested in their phone screens than actual conversation.
The numbers paint a bleak picture. A staggering study from the Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand revealed that 36% of New Zealanders reported feeling lonely most or all of the time in 20211. That’s more than double the rate reported in 2018. Globally, it’s a similar story – loneliness is spreading faster than the common cold, leading health experts to declare a ‘loneliness epidemic’.
However, there’s a solution in our midst, and it’s not the run-of-the-mill self-care regimen you might expect. It’s not about spending more hours on Headspace or chanting affirmations into the mirror every morning. Though those things can be beneficial, they aren’t the whole story.
The answer is simpler, more primal. It’s something deeply ingrained in our humanity: connection.
The First Piece of the Puzzle:
Connecting with Yourself
Let’s start with a foundational truth: we can’t connect with others until we’ve connected with ourselves. It’s like trying to find your way through an uncharted jungle without a compass. Chances are, you’ll end up lost, disoriented, and up a tree with a very confused monkey.
So, how do we establish this connection with ourselves? One word: introspection. This isn’t about gazing longingly into your own eyes via a mirror. It’s about taking time each day to tune into your internal dialogue, feelings, and thoughts… And observe them, objectively.
Methods like mindfulness, meditation, journaling and breathwork offer practical tools for enhancing self-awareness. The key is consistency. It’s far better to meditate for ten minutes a day than for two hours once a week. Think of it as brushing your teeth – a regular, essential part of your daily routine. Except this one comes without the minty fresh breath (but with potential enlightenment).
Nervous system regulation techniques such as hot and cold therapy (saunas and ice baths) also play a critical role. They’re like a reset button for your brain, helping you tune into your body and mind in a deeper, more meaningful way. Imagine it like resetting your computer to clear all the clutter and speed up performance – except this reset leaves you feeling more grounded, balanced, and focused, not just with a slightly faster processing speed.
On my recent expedition, walking the length of New Zealand on the Te Araroa trail, I realised the transformative power of these self-connection practices first-hand.
I knew what I was getting into; over three months spent predominantly alone. My walking pace was somewhat swifter than most and that meant that I didn’t walk with people very often so I had plenty of time to ponder my inner and outer world. I had made a decision; no headphones. That meant no audiobooks, podcasts, music or anything else to distract my brain as I powered down the country. I didn’t meet one other person with that same MO. Practically every hiker on the trail that I saw was listening to something as they walked; whether that be from a personal device or the person next to them talking. I saw people watching downloaded movies and TV shows in a tent at the base of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
I had realised this before, but seeing all of this really made it incredibly obvious… People really, really don’t like sitting alone with their thoughts.
I get it. I don’t like it so much either. But if ever there was a prime opportunity for introspection then this was it. My mind went wild. Then quiet. Then wild again. Then clear. Then ideas started coming in. Then nonsense. Then more clarity, understanding and perspective. I was basically doing a walking meditation. I was being mindful as each footstep touched the ground or as my eyes processed the wonder of the rock strata. And I made sure I wrote down all of the good (and sometimes not-so-good) realisations that came to me.
Obviously, you all may not have the compulsion (or time) to walk the length of NZ. But I can tell you now; it hammered home to me the benefits of connecting to the self.
– YOU’LL FIND PRACTICAL TIPS AT THE END –
The Second Piece of the Puzzle:
Connecting with the Land
Now that we’ve explored our innermost selves, it’s time to expand our horizons outward and build our bond with the land. You might ask, “What does Mother Nature have to do with our mental fitness?” The answer is – a whole lot!
Did you know that just a simple walk in the park can significantly reduce stress levels and increase feelings of happiness3? Nature even has significant benefits in prisons; the Annals of the American Association of Geographers journal concluded that a 10 per cent increase in prison green space could reduce violence between prisoners by 6.6 per cent, self-harm by 3.5 per cent and assaults on staff by 3.2 per cent. Nature is our natural anti-depressant. In fact, the act of immersing oneself in nature to improve mental health outcomes even has a beautiful name in Japan, the concept of “Shinrin Yoku” or forest bathing.
Whether it’s gardening, going for a hike, or simply sitting by a babbling brook, the act of connecting with nature provides profound benefits to our mental and physical well-being. This might seem less practical if you’re living in a bustling metropolis, but even in the concrete jungle, there are pockets of greenery awaiting your visit.
Grounding, or physically touching the earth (barefoot if possible), has been shown to have a slew of health benefits, including reducing inflammation, improving sleep, and reducing stress4.
And, it’s not just the serene beauty of nature that does wonders. The act of gardening can have a therapeutic effect, engaging our senses, keeping us grounded (literally and metaphorically), and creating a sense of achievement when we see the seeds we planted grow into a beautiful flower or a scrumptious vegetable.
During my long trek on the Te Araroa trail, I had obviously had numerous encounters with the spectacular beauty that is Aotearoa and it further solidified my connection with the healing power of nature.
When you are depressed your worldview narrows, everything is about you and your current survival. I know this from experience. A range of scientists have shown that being out in the natural world is the precise opposite of this sensation – a feeling of awe.
That feeling of awe works to quell that ego, to diminish it to a manageable point. It’s a way to see, to understand, how we are part of a much grander system.
There were many times, in the middle of the forest, sitting on the top of a mountain or the edge of a gigantic lake that I felt this – perspective. It can be hard to find in a bedroom or sometimes even a therapist’s office, but out there, with the grandiosity of the spectacle of nature, it’s surprisingly easy to find. That is if you let it find you…
The Final Piece of the Puzzle:
Connecting with Each Other
“No man is an island,” they say. That’s spot on because let’s face it, being an island would be pretty dull – no chats, no shared laughs, and definitely no karaoke nights. We’re social creatures and we live for that buzz of being part of something bigger than ourselves. This isn’t just about shooting the breeze, it’s about feeding our inbuilt need for connection.
Now, forging relationships isn’t a walk in the park. Think of it as cultivating a garden – it takes time, care, and a dash of sunshine (read: positive effort). But oh boy, when you see those first blooms, it’s all worth it.
What does a flourishing garden of relationships give you? A cheering squad, a sense of belonging, and a life bursting with colour. Don’t just take my word for it; the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running studies on adult life, showed that it is strong relationships, not cash or fame, that keeps people content throughout their lives.
To cultivate your own social garden, start by being as present as a garden gnome (without the creepy stare). In an age where technology has us completely entangled, being fully ‘there’ in interactions shows that you value the other person more than your latest social media update.
Next rule? Active listening. This means not just hearing the words the other person is saying, but understanding the whole plant: the root of their feelings and the bloom of their emotions.
And here’s where we dig deep and keep smashing this gardening metaphor over the head. Building strong relationships involves sticking around through both sunshine and storms. The Japanese have a saying, “kizuna,” referring to bonds formed during tough times. It’s these connections that offer the sturdiest trellis for mental fitness to climb.
But remember, it’s not about having a garden the size of a national park, but a private plot full of rich, vibrant life.
So there you have it; connecting with others is less of a task, and more of an expedition, requiring you to show up, shed the armour, and be authentically you.
CONNECTING ON TRAIL
Earlier I wrote that I walk quite fast. What that meant on the trail was I didn’t have much time to forge connections as each night I stayed with a completely new set of people at a campground. Quality connections were alluding me and I was having the same conversations over and over again.
I decided to change that so I purposefully changed the way I was having conversations with people I met. I started using the techniques discussed in my podcast episode about how to ask questions to fall in love. I started asking better questions which led to getting more thoughtful answers and creating higher-quality connections in a fraction of the time. The key is slow and increasing vulnerability. It’s a simple formula, the more we share with others, the more they share with us, and the more we connect as humans.
I’m sure you can think of some ‘friends’ right now who never actually share anything with you; the conversations are very surface-level. These relationships might be fine in a workplace or sports team context and are suitable connections for particular reasons but they’re not the ones that are moving us up the mental fitness continuum.
Another reason I was able to connect with people was through sheer need. I needed help; so I had to ask for it. Everything from accommodation to hitch-hiking, through to supplies and medical treatment. Every time I asked for help I encountered someone willing to give it. That ‘help’ created a shared emotional experience – connection. I will forever be connected to all those who helped me and I am so grateful for that.
Pulling it All Together:
Embracing Connection for Better Mental Fitness
We’ve explored three facets of connection and their role in improving mental fitness and alleviating mental health problems. Now, let’s talk about how you can harness the power of connection in your daily life.
Connecting with Yourself
It all begins with self-awareness. Try to dedicate at least a few minutes every day for silent introspection. You could do this through mindfulness, meditation, breathwork or journaling.
I’d recommend starting with a simple 5-minute daily meditation. There are plenty of free resources online to get you started but really it’s as simple as sitting down, closing your eyes and observing what comes up. You’ll probably be quite surprised!
The key here is turning up consistently. This isn’t an ‘Oh, I found it! That’s the answer and I’m good forever’ scenario. This is a process, a practice, and the better we get at it the more rewarding it will be.
Connecting with Nature
Step outside. Smell the flowers, feel the wind on your face, and let the beauty of nature refresh your senses. Activities like gardening, hiking, or just a simple walk in the park can help you build a deeper connection with the land.
It can be as simple as that. Schedule it if you have to. Take an umbrella if you must! The benefits are there, they are proven, so go out and get them!
Connecting with Each Other
Developing quality relationships takes time and effort. Be open, be authentic, and above all, be present. When you’re with someone, give them your undivided attention.
Seek out new connections and nurture the existing ones. Be there for people, not just in their times of joy, but also in their times of need.
It can be scary to put yourself out there, I understand. The best thing you can possibly do is go join a community of people who are what you want to become. They will then help you become that. Try some new things, you might be surprised what you end up appreciating…
And that’s it! It’s a very simple three-step process, but the results can be life-changing. This shift in perspective from our modern, disconnected lives towards a more connected existence is what we need to bolster our mental fitness.
Through fostering connections with ourselves, with nature, and with others, we can navigate the challenges of life with greater resilience, clarity, and joy.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. Start small, and find what works for you. The road to better mental fitness begins with a single step. So why not start today? The world is waiting for you, and the power of connection is right at your fingertips, you can even start by connecting with me.
- Ministry of Social Development. (2021). The Social Report 2021 – Te pūrongo oranga tangata.
- Morin, A., & Michaud, J. (2007). Self-awareness and the left inferior frontal gyrus: inner speech use during self-related processing. Brain Research Bulletin, 74(6), 387-396. doi:10.1016/j.brainresbull.2007.06.013
- Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005
- Chevalier, G., Sinatra, S. T., Oschman, J. L., Sokal, K., & Sokal, P. (2012). Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons. Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 2012, 1-8. doi:10.1155/2012/291541
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237.
- Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. F. (2001). Social ties and mental health. Journal of Urban Health, 78(3), 458–467.