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Restoring Mental Vitality in an Endangered World: Reflections on the Benefits of Walking

Ecopsychology 02/2010; 2(1):13-22. DOI: 10.1089/eco.2009.0043

ABSTRACT Coping with the challenges of global climate disruption and the peaking of the rate of fossil fuel production will require behavioral change on a massive scale. There are many skills that will help individuals deal with this coming transition but none more central than the abilities to problem-solve creatively, plan and restrain behavior, and manage the emotions that result from the loss of an affluent lifestyle. These abilities require a mental state called vitality. Even in the best of circumstances, maintaining this state can be difficult and, to make matters worse, it seems that modern culture is conspiring to wear down this aspect of mental effectiveness.

This article discusses mental vitality as being based upon the capacity to direct attention. Functioning effectively despite the distractions and challenges of an electrifying and changing world fatigues this capacity. Restoring one’s ability to direct attention is explained as a likely precondition to effective problem-solving, planning, and self-regulating, thus making such restoration essential for high levels of individual performance in general and for thoughtful coping in particular.

Fortunately, restoring mental vitality requires nothing more than commonplace activities in everyday environments. In fact, since everyday nature is sufficient, there may be no special advantage to time spent in spectacular environments. For instance, the simple activity of walking in natural settings, particularly walking mindfully, may be all that is needed for restoration. The article concludes with a series of specific prescriptions for enhancing our ability to cope with the coming transition, which can be summarized as simply to spend time walking outdoors, regularly, surrounded by and mindful of everyday nature.

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    ABSTRACT: The converging of climate disruption, energy descent and economic instability is stressing civilization, perhaps foreshadowing a downshift to a lower level of complexity. It is easy to despair at the unsustainability of human behavior; however, such despair may come from taking too narrow and pessimistic a view of human nature, such as believing unsustainability results from a motivational drive to reduce cognitive dissonance, which leaves us floun-dering in collective denial or that behavioral inertia is an immutable force making us unable to shift direction, or that humans are egocentric, short-term gain maximizers, consuming resources with little concern for waste, passing costs on to others and forming exclusive groups that neglect outsiders. While each is based on valid insights, the mistake is our believing that any one is the root of human nature. Such reductionism harkens, unfortunately, to an earlier period, when a then-dominant behaviorism argued that the existence of a behaviorist explanation made all other explanations irrelevant. After over a century of research, it would hardly seem necessary for us to argue in support of multiple determinants of behavior. Yet, single-determination theories abound. Their oversimplification is no more acceptable now than it was then; if indeed there is a demonstrable role for one view, this in no way eliminates the possibility that there is a role for other, and more positive, views as well. That humans can act in unsustainable ways is irrefutable. But when discussing human behavior, saying that our species' motivation is X or our behavior is to always do Y is simply wrong. There is no scientific basis for so narrow a view of human nature. The brain is more malleable and behavior more adaptive than such statements allow.
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May 28, 2014