Nature's role in existential health

Last changed: 16 February 2024
Photo of people by a lake surrounded by forest

Existential health and the “meaning of life”

"Existential health is the combined processes of basic thoughts, actions and feelings when people react to the different situations of life in relation to themselves, their context and their personal opinions", as described by Cecilia Melder, researcher in existential public health. This deals with how people look at life, the meaning of life and the experience of connection. 

When the importance of nature and its perceived value in therapeutic treatment are examined, nature is described as stable and reliable and, at the same time, always changing and developing over time (Dybvik et al 2018). "That is as it should be," say participants in the study about this constancy and concurrent change. The cyclical quality of nature, such as sunrise, sunset and tides, was mentioned as aspects that enhance the feeling of this. The experience of nature is described as the meeting between man and the elements, the one affecting the other without words. What is being described is the existential experience that nature is much larger than the self: there is a feeling of belonging, and magnificent views, stars and wildlife have the greatest significance to that experience.

Being part of a greater whole is a feeling expressed by participants with exhaustion disorders undergoing garden rehabilitation (Sahlin et al 2012). Nature contributes to the start of existential thinking and the participants identify themselves in the processes of nature. The symbolism of parallel processes between man and nature makes a person feel comfortable, and this in turn helps to develop thought models that we can use to explain our own situation. In nature, we can reflect on our lives, and the nature-based experiences help us find our intrinsic value and the meaning of life. Nature simply functions as an assistive element.

The religious historian and author David Thurfjell calls the Swedes a ‘granskogsfolk’ (people of the pine forest) and believes that nature has held what amounts to a religious and/or existential significance for the secularised Swedes (Thurfjell 2020). The forest communicates and is used as a metaphor. In the forest we feel cared for, being there is perceived as private and safe, and we find comfort. Many people talk to the trees and experience an affinity and a quasi-religious self-dissolution. The forest is more authentic than everyday life and we feel that we are coming "home".

Existential health and life crises

Much of the research into nature and existential health revolves around how people use and experience nature in a life crisis, such as a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one or in relation to ageing and the knowledge that we are soon going to die.

Being close to nature can increase existential well-being (Roessler et al 2021). Nature can act as a ‘safe base’ and offer cancer patients a familiar and caring context from which new perspectives can emerge (Blaschke 2017).

Nature can also be used as a coping strategy to deal with grief after losing a child (Ahmadi and Zandi 2021). It has also been shown that the most important coping strategy for Swedish cancer patients is to be in nature (Ahmadi and Ahmadi 2015). Nature sounds and walks in nature are then viewed as particularly important.

Cancer patients who participate in an existential support program feel that nature/the environment evokes feelings of peace, increased self-confidence and spiritual belonging (Assing Hvidt el al 2020). They feel that nature acts as a breathing space from everyday exhaustion and from overstimulation in other parts of the treatment programme they are undergoing. They enjoy nature by walking or cycling in the forest, along a canal or by the sea.

The existential-health research area

Existential health is a relatively new area and research is not very extensive. The research available is qualitative and based mostly on interviews and survey studies with open responses. Since the subject relates to our approach to existence and the environment, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to work with quantitative measures. 

/Text: Ann Dolling


Ahmadi F & Ahmadi N (2015) Nature as the most important coping strategy among cancer patients: a swedish survey. Journal of Religion and Health. 54:1177-1190.

Ahmadi F & Zandi S (2021) Meaning-making coping methods among bereaved parents: a pilot survey study in Sweden. Behav. Sci. 11:131.

Assing Hvidt, E Hvidt NC, Graven V, la Cour K,  Rottmann N, Thomsen KF, Lindqvist O, Rasmussen A, Skaarup H, Roessler KK (2020) An existential support program for people with cancer: Development and qualitative evaluation. European Journal of Oncology Nursing 46: 101768.

Blascke S (2017) The role of nature in cancer patients' lives: a systematic review and qualitative meta-synthesis. BMC Cancer 17:370.

Dybvik JB, Sundsford S, Wang CEA, Nivison M (2018) Significance of nature in a clinical setting and its perceived therapeutic value from patients’ perspective. European Journal of Psychotherapy & Counselling, 20:4, 429-449.

Roessler KK, Graven V, la Cour K, Hvidt N, Assing Hvidt E (2021) “The quietness of the place calmed my troubled mind”: The restorative potential of environments in an existential rehabilitation programme for patients with cancer The Expository Times 132:201–210.

Sahlin E, Matuszczyk JV,  Ahlborg, G Jr, Grahn P (2012) How do participants in nature-based therapy experience and evaluate their rehabilitation? Source: Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture 22:8-23.

Thurfjell D (2020) Granskogsfolk. Norstedts, Stockholm.