Looking at beautiful photographs of natural scenes may do more than put you in a pleasant state of mind—it may help you feel better about your body. Spending time in nature is even more powerful.
That matters. A negative body image—feeling that your looks don’t measure up to expectations—is associated with eating disorders, depression and sexual dysfunction, as well as physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and smoking. A kind of therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people reframe negative thoughts, can help. So can a regular exercise habit.
And now, the nature cure. When people look at a series of photographs of natural scenes, they report a modest improvement in body image. Looking at pictures of man-made environments doesn’t have the same effect.
How does it work? One hypothesis is that natural environments lead us to think about our bodies as agents that do things—such as hiking—rather than objects to be measured against society’s beauty norms. Viren Swami, PhD, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK and lead author of several studies, offers another possibility—natural images promote “cognitive quiet,” hushing the brain’s background noise about everyday concerns. While these studies show short-term effects, over time these experiences may lead to a more permanent change in how we think about our ourselves. His conclusion: We come to appreciate more important things in life than what our bodies look like.
Nor do you have to wander deep into the wilderness, either—a quick stroll through the neighborhood park has this effect. So does looking at photos of the Grand Canyon.