Raise your gaze to find calm, improve concentration and even boost confidence

You might think that looking up, much like breathing, is a given. Something we all do on autopilot. But in the same way that meditation turns mindful inhales and exhales into an exercise that soothes our senses, looking up with intention can ignite them.

Dappled light flooding through the tree canopy, birds in flight, stars piercing the night sky. These are but a few of the wonders of our overhead ecosystem. All too often we let them pass us by, transfixed on getting from A to B or looking down at our phones. Nature plays a fundamental role in the benefits we gain from lifting our gaze.

Improved attention span

Watching the gentle sway of the trees certainly feels good. Science tells us that observing a treescape has the power to heal and improve concentration, too. One study revealed that patients showed a faster recovery time when they were able to see trees from their beds, while a more recent study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that people demonstrated improved performance on attention-demanding tasks after spending time around nature.

Environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Surrey, Dr Birgitta Gatersleben, recognises the significant role nature can play in our emotional wellbeing. “It offers us light relief from the demands of our daily lives,” she explains.

The good news is that the benefits of looking above are not bound only to nature. “Looking upwards gives us perspective because it helps us realise how small we actually are,” says Dr Birgitta. “We look up when we’re in awe of our surroundings. It acts as a momentary escape.” The benefits of experiencing awe, a positive feeling provoked when we encounter something vast, became a focus for researchers at Stanford University in California. The study showed that participants who experienced it felt they had more time available and greater life satisfaction as a result.

You may experience awe when immersed in displays of bright autumnal leaves, while watching a thunderstorm or standing at the foot of a towering mountain, but also in the face of spectacular architecture or colourful street art. If you’re a city slicker, look up to the cityscape where the buildings are often very intricate.

Opens up your posture

Whatever it is that draws your eyes upwards, it’s likely that your posture will naturally open up as you stand tall. That movement alone could be beneficial to your wellbeing. It emulates the fundamental elements of power poses, positions Harvard professor and social psychologist Amy Cuddy believes can help to lift our mood and boost our self-confidence.

“Humans and other animals display power and dominance through expansive non-verbal displays,” she explains. A study Amy ran with Columbia and Harvard universities showed that when participants displayed expansiveness (where their bodies took up more space) and openness (where their limbs were open), their levels of the stress hormone cortisol decreased, while their levels of testosterone, associated with dominant behaviour, increased. So taking a walk outside and looking up to the skies during your lunch hour, ahead of a big meeting at work, could actually help you approach it with more confidence and a sense of calm. 

1. Stargaze

The benefits of being around nature in the daytime are well researched. Now, experts are looking into whether the same benefits apply after sunset. A study by Coventry University found ‘dark nature’ (nocturnal, nature-based interaction) to be life-enhancing, as participants showed an increased “sense of flow through fascination and loss of time”

2. Bird watch

Follow birds in fight or observe them nest-building. A study in the BioScience journal found that when the number of birds participants saw in an afternoon increased, they experienced lower levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Treasure their uplifting calls, too. In another study into the effect of birds on our wellbeing, researchers at Surrey University discovered that listening to birdsong improved attention span and helped to reduce stress

3. Forest bathe

Master the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere) to deepen your connection with the environment. With its focus on mindfulness, forest bathing encourages you to activate your senses. You may experience reduced stress levels, an energy boost and improved concentration, according to Dr Qing Li in his book Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing

4. Contemplate art and architecture

A study by Professor Semir Zeki at University College London scanned participants’ brains as they looked at art and found it triggered a surge of dopamine, the chemical associated with desire and affection. It has a calming effect, too, says a University of Westminster study, which found office workers who went to a gallery at lunchtime had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol

More stories from the At Home, With Us hub