How Gen Z is appreciating nature and being alone 

Editor’s note: Katie Gillespie is the head of research at Sympler.

Gen Z are at the forefront of media as their voices offer new perspectives on lifestyle, fashion, finance, media, dating and food. However, in our conversations with this generation, we’ve identified a new trend that highlights the power and meaning of being alone in nature – whether it’s in the woods, next to a pond or even just a walk outside. This kind of alone time offers Gen Z increasingly rare experiences of quiet, peace, simplicity and time for self-reflection that they can't find in the noise of the rest of their lives. 

During some of the most formative years for Gen Z, their identities were influenced by the pandemic. It’s well known that COVID-19 profoundly affected children and teens in their social lives as school went online and real-life encounters with people outside their families were limited. Loneliness spiked during the pandemic across generations, and Gen Z was no exception, but they cultivated a different sense of being alone – one not leading to loneliness.

Nature became a space where they could escape home and take a break from the intensified reality of online life overtaking their existence. The effects of growing up during the pandemic, paired with other generational shifts we see in Gen Z (appreciating simplicity, having modest, but no less inspired, aspirations and being grounded) influence Gen Z’s comfort with – and need for – time alone in spaces of natural beauty. 

Gen Z has set the stage for what it means to find joy in being alone without being lonely. The simplicity of their connection with nature illuminates insights for all of us who might struggle with loneliness so that we might connect more deeply with the places we live and the people we are. 

What we have learned from Gen Z

Being alone in nature gives Gen Z a desperately needed space of quiet, peace and serenity in a world full of noise.

Across many of our studies, we hear members of Gen Z complain of the “noise” of daily life – the constant inputs of media and the meaningful but often overwhelming social encounters with friends, family and teachers. In such a noisy world, it’s hard to find peace and quiet. But they are finding it in nature – in taking the time out of the day to sit quietly under a tree or walk through an empty field. One of our participants wrote:

“I like being just in the woods now. I go there because being close to nature and seeing animals, it's very peaceful and serene.” 

Silence – true silence – is in short supply in this world of noise. Silence itself can be a healing respite from the chaotic eye of the storm.  

“When I go on walks alone I like to just breathe in the air in the silence.” 

The “noise” of everyday life also involves judgment from others and the negative self-talk that perpetuates Gen Z’s insecurities. In nature, they can drown out – even if just for a moment – their inner critics and the voices of others reverberating in their minds to shake their confidence and limit their capacity for self-love.

“I used to go to the pond in my neighborhood and sit on the hill next to it. I would listen to music and just think and it made me feel comfortable being on my own without other people judging me.” 

Gen Z cultivates the art of attentiveness within and beyond themselves.   

Cultivating attentiveness to nature is a method of refining our capacity for reflection on not only the external world but also on our thoughts and feelings. 

The natural world is an easy subject for practicing the art of attentiveness. We see a fern unfurling on the edge of a path, a caterpillar disappearing under a leaf, the sound of rustling as a bird makes a nest high in the tree above. Being present in nature lends itself to this level of granular observation, as the noise of the rest of the world quiets and as our nervous systems settle, allowing for more carefully nuanced attention to what’s around us. As one respondent said:

“I went out and just took a walk, airing nature and the things I saw, I would pay attention to every little detail, just trying to see what I could notice, being on my own really enhanced it because it allowed me to keep my full attention on the nature around me and not on some other person.” 

It’s in coming intentionally into this state of attentiveness to nature that we can find a sense of calm and safety that makes it possible to practice more meaningful self-reflection.

“My favorite place to go to was the woods because I could find peace and clarity within there and just be able to have my thoughts be on nature, like the deer and the rabbits or the stray cats. I just find it kind of seeing it as, like, a safe haven.”

Once quieted, our minds and hearts are clear to feel those truer thoughts and feelings. To think about what we need, what we want, how we’re in relation with those we love. 

“I like to take walks alone in the park with me and my thoughts, whatever emotions. It's nice.”  

Finding beauty in simplicity – in the sun shining, in observing wild animals living their lives, in natural spaces vibrating with life – inspires an open-hearted exploration of both what’s around them and what’s within them. 

“I was walking around on a hiking trail on my own. It was in the summer and everything was still green and luscious, the sun was shining and animals were extremely active. I think being alone gave me more time to explore and process and just think.” 

Finding their true selves: In nature Gen Z finds who they are and who they want to be

Time on their own outdoors is also foundational for the formation of their identities and personal growth. The independence and strength they get from this meaningful time empowers them in their day-to-day lives and social interactions, helping to define where they are positioned in the world and how they want to relate to others in a more intentional way. As one participant shared: 

“I'm in there walking to my local park and just relaxing and looking at the sky and just wondering where I am in life right now. It made me feel good that my life is good and the situation I'm in is good and I shouldn't have to worry as much and being alone made me feel independent and strong.”   

Learning to be at ease first in this aloneness and getting to know themselves, gives them an anchor around which to weather the storm of daily life. They can be more authentically themselves with friends and family, at home and school and they can find the resilience to the vortex of competitiveness and comparison online that risks making them feel “not quite good enough.” They’re learning healthy ways to be alone in the surprising simplicity of nature. In this aloneness, they find the bravery and self-reflection to better understand themselves: 

“Being alone made it better because I felt a sense of freedom and I was able to be myself.”  

At the heart of these insights, Gen Z has exposed a groundedness in trying to understand the simplest yet most profound elements of life and our place in it. Those we’ve talked to follow their intuition to navigate the world with greater intention and find freedom in being alone. It helps them identify what they want and need, who they are and how they can be shaped by the quiet, self-reflection and the search for their truest selves. Following these individuals, we can tap into our own intuition, finding the staggering beauty in being alone without being lonely and appreciating the quiet power of cutting through the noise.