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Column: Spending time outside fosters genuine human connection

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Early morning sunlight shines through the trees onto a pathway at Bolin Creek on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

There is nothing that strengthens my relationship with others like being outside. Whether it is trail hiking or walking around in the Quad, I feel more connected to the people I am with. I believe it is because of the limited distractions that come with being outdoors.

Hiking is my favorite outdoor activity. When I hike in remote areas with little to no service, one of the only things I can do is talk to the other person. There are no distractions to turn to, forcing me to either walk in silence and admire the views or interact with the people around me. This enables me to be completely in the moment and be an active and engaged listener, limiting the possibility of small talk and fostering meaningful conversations instead.

I experienced this when I went on a pre-pandemic backpacking trip in 2020. It was a transformative experience for me; I was isolated from any distractions, which enabled me to be fully present and gave me the ability to form deep emotional relationships with those around me. I opened myself up to people who were previously strangers and felt understood, heard and loved by every single one of them.

Trips like these have let me learn more about a person after spending a few days with them outdoors than I have about people I lived with for an entire school year.

As a college student, our busy day-to-day lives make it harder to bond with people on a deeper, more intimate level. We are required to work incredibly hard to keep up with the academic rigor and, as a result, spend much of our time inside classrooms or libraries on our laptops. We feel the need to constantly check every notification in case it is a Canvas announcement, email or a text from our friends, sucking us into the digital world and causing us not to pay attention to what’s right in front of us. The few hours we spend outside, coupled with our attachment to digital devices, are suppressing our ability and desire to form genuine human connections, favoring surface-level chit-chat instead.

Spending time outside can serve as a cleanse from these devices. You will never know how much they control you until you spend time without them. Every single time I go outdoors with my friends, I leave feeling fulfilled, refreshed and revived. This is because being outside enables us to give each other our undivided attention since there are fewer artificial distractions.

I am not preaching about going outside just because I love the outdoors or because I like to connect with people. Humans are social beings who have evolved with a need for social connection — one just as important as food and water. Research shows that we have an innate and biologically driven ability to develop social bonds and form strong relationships. It is a vital part of the human experience — a need I often feel is not being satisfied because of the countless interruptions and distractions we face every day. 

There are several outdoor activities to do around Chapel Hill that can clear out day-to-day distractions and help you develop these stronger connections. Falls Lake in Durham is a great place to go swimming, boating and biking. Jordan Lake, my personal favorite, is a closer option I go to when the weather gets warmer. Another fun activity is visiting the Carrboro Farmers' Market, which takes place outdoors every Saturday and Wednesday. Chapel Hill also has several great trails to go hiking on, like Bolin Creek and Battle Park.

Leaving campus is not necessary either. The simple act of going on a walk around main campus or in the Coker Arboretum, reading a book under a tree or having a picnic on the Quad are easy ways to get outside with friends.

I encourage you to tap into your outdoorsy side and spend time outside with new and old friends. Try it and notice how going on a hike or participating in other outdoor activities influences your conversations and connections  — and, discover a new feeling of fulfillment.

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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