In awe of nature and its restorative power

UCI professor studies the mental health benefits of spending time in the great outdoors

Paul Piff, associate professor of psychological science at UC Irvine

Paul Piff wants you to know a thing or two about the great outdoors, goosebumps and mental health.

Piff, an associate professor of psychological science at UC Irvine, studies awe, which many people experience while spending time in nature. This lofty sensation, which often causes goosebumps – tiny contractions of muscles surrounding the hair follicles – is good for you, he argues, strengthening resilience in the face of life’s hardships.

“Awe can reduce fixation on day-to-day worries and reorient people to life’s bigger picture,” Piff wrote in a recent paper commissioned by L.L. Bean, the Maine-based outdoor-clothing company founded in 1912.

This may be particularly good news for Irvine residents, who live so close to tens of thousands of acres of unspoiled open space, as Piff tells the Standard.

“The array of natural wonders available to us in Orange County, from the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the grand vistas of the mountains, make awe easy to find if we take the time to look for it,” Piff says.

Personal growth tied to outdoor experiences

Six months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Piff surveyed some 600 UC Irvine students about their level of agreement with 21 statements on their tendency to experience awe, compassion, pride, amusement, contentment and love in their everyday lives. When he later followed up, he found that a tendency to feel awe, which students frequently experienced outdoors, predicted the students’ self-reports of personal growth more than any of the other positive emotions – including love.

His L.L. Bean paper adds to increasing research making the connection between spending time outdoors and mental health. In a paper last August in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, researchers described 227 ways in which people’s interactions with nature can affect well-being, encouraging some experts to speculate that doctors might someday prescribe outdoor activities.

“The array of natural wonders available to us in Orange County, from the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean to the grand vistas of the mountains, make awe easy to find if we take the time to look for it.” – Paul Piff, UCI professor

In a published paper in 2015, Piff and four other researchers argued that experiencing awe outdoors made people nicer to each other. In one of their experiments, participants stood in a grove of towering Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees on the UC Berkeley campus, with some told to look up into the trees for one minute, while others were instructed to gaze at the facade of a nearby science building. The researchers then staged an accident in which a person stumbled and dropped a handful of pens. The participants who had looked up at the trees picked up more pens.

At UCI, Piff directs the Morality, Emotion and Social Hierarchy Lab, where he studies human kindness and cooperation, and the social consequences of economic inequality.

“I’m outdoors every day – whether it’s a hike outside with my wife and baby boy or a run on the beach – and awe is easy to find if you look for it,” says Piff, who often conducts classes at Aldrich Park in the center of UCI’s campus.

L.L. Bean says it is using Piff’s research as a basis for a new $200,000 partnership with Mental Health America to fund efforts to improve mental well-being through time spent outdoors.

3 Hikes to find ‘awe’

Three Sisters Rock

This is one of the most recognizable rock formations on The Irvine Ranch. You’ll find it in Shady Canyon at the intersection of Shady Oaks, Butterfly Valley and Monkey Flower Mesa trails, making it a popular destination for hikers.

Barbara’s Lake

Set in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, Barbara’s Lake is the only natural lake in Orange County. Round-trip from Nix Nature Center on Laguna Canyon Road is about 1.5 miles on Mary’s Trail. Listen for songbirds in the willow trees and waterfowl at the lake.

Hicks Canyon Trail

Try Hicks Canyon Trail for a shady hike in the heart of the city. Much of this pleasant 2-miler is shaded by majestic eucalyptus trees, planted years ago in a grid to protect crops on The Irvine Ranch from the Santa Ana winds.


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