Summer. Perfect for lounging around doing nothing more than gazing at clouds. It’s a completely free pastime.
The traditional spot to indulge in this pleasurable activity is sitting in the grass. Better yet, lying on the grass. Stay there as clouds drift into view over treetops and roofs, slowly changing form. Linger long enough, you might insist you can feel the planet moving.
Looking at clouds is a perfect way to disengage from all the buzzing, ringing distractions that claw our attention to shreds. Those puffs of air vapor seem to invite contemplation. And that’s good. Daydreaming is so rejuvenating that it can boost creativity. It also helps us to relax, review emotion-laden situations calmly, generate new ideas, and get to know ourselves better.
When we let our minds wander, we’re in what neuroscience calls the “default mode network.” An L.A. Times article titled, “An Idle Brain May Be The Self’s Workshop” notes,
“Just as sleep appears to play an important role in learning, memory consolidation and maintaining the body’s metabolic function, some scientists wonder whether unstructured mental time — time to zone out and daydream — might also play a key role in our mental well-being. If so, that’s a cautionary tale for a society that prizes productivity and takes a dim view of mind-wandering.”
Even when you don’t have time to lie in the grass, take the time to look up. You may notice there’s really no such thing as a less-than-fascinating sky. Raining, snowing, overcast, starry, it’s all lovely and always in a slightly different way. It has to do with seeing, really seeing.
I learned this when I helped conduct a psychology study in college. We went to urban office buildings and asked people two questions. First, we asked each person to describe his or her mood. Second, we asked them to describe the current appearance of the sky. These people were in their offices or hallways when we talked to them and the windows in most buildings were shuttered with horizontal blinds ubiquitous during that decade, so the only way they could have described the sky is if they had paid attention on their way to work or during a break. Here’s the interesting part. The people who identified themselves as pessimistic, angry, depressed or in other negative terms were also the ones unable to describe the sky’s appearance. You guessed it. The happiest and most optimistic people either correctly described the sky or came very close.
That study was never published, but research these days now indicates that pausing to experience nature in our daily lives is powerfully positive. Just a few minutes of regular exposure has been shown to improve our emotional and physical health. It leads us to be more generous, to enhance relationships and value community. The effect of nature, even looking out a window at nearby trees, seems to lead us, as one researcher noted, to be “our best selves.”
Go ahead, look at some clouds right now. You may see a cloud pig sailing a cloud boat. The sailboat may morph into French fries before the whole thing breaks apart into a shape resembling a bongo-playing octopus. Good thing the images we see in clouds aren’t a meterological Rorschach test.
Find out how nature-deprivation can affect your child’s eyesight.
Check out the Cloud Appreciation Society. You can post photos to the online gallery, chat about all things cloudy on the forum, and live by their manifesto which includes a pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking.”
Consider becoming cloud collectors. Bird watchers keep a life list of their sightings, now cloud watchers can do the same with The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. Packed with beautiful photos, this is a perfect book for adults and kids to share as they “collect” different cloud types.
You might want to keep a handbook near a window or in your car, ready to help with identifications. Two of the best are The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds also by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and The Book of Clouds by John A. Day, who was known through his long career as Cloudman. Check out resources on Cloudman’s site including instructions for making a cloud discovery notebook, tips for photographing clouds, and cloud history.
More information available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.