By Dr. Elizabeth K. Nisbet, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trent University
With the recent time change, even with the best intentions it's hard to get outside during daylight hours. Finding a few moments to enjoy some nature time during a hectic work day is even more challenging when the temperature dips below zero. This may be a difficult season - even for enthusiastic nature lovers - but keeping that connection to our natural world has a range of benefits (many of which are reviewed in Selhub and Logan's well-researched new book "Your Brain on Nature").
Environmental or 'conservation' psychologists try to unravel the mysteries of human behaviour - why some people are drawn to and enjoy nature while others prefer to avoid it. By using self-report surveys, it is possible to measure how connected or "nature related" people are. This concept of nature relatedness is similar to a personality trait, like an ecological self or sense of identity that includes the natural world. As environmental problems worsen, more researchers are exploring these human-nature relationships to better understand how our connection (or disconnection) might influence how we treat our environment. When people feel connected to something, they want to protect it. And this is what we find when we measure nature relatedness; being more connected to the environment goes along with greater concern and ecologically friendly behaviour. Nature relatedness is also good for our psyche. That is, more nature related people tend to report being happier (disconnection from nature is associated with more negative moods). For many people, the finding that nature can make us feel good is not exactly earth (no pun intended) shattering news. Intuitively, we seem to know that nature can be healing, relaxing, and restorative.
The physical and mental health benefits of nature contact (or the hazardous effects of 'nature deficits') are getting media attention, and even influencing political decisions (in 2010 U.S. President Obama called for research on how to reconnect Americans with the great outdoors). What may be puzzling is that many people underestimate nature's benefits.
My colleagues and I conducted a series of studies in which we asked people to predict how a short walk outdoors would make them feel; after 15 minutes of walking, we measured their mood again. Compared to walking indoors, a brief stroll outside provided a significant happiness boost. What surprised us was that even though people expected to enjoy being outdoors, it was much more pleasant than anticipated. This underestimation of nature's mood boosting effects (even unspectacular nature, such as an urban park), may explain why we don't get outdoors more often. Battling the allure of technology and overcoming the seasonal challenges of Canadian weather is not an easy task, but new approaches to environmental education such as 'citizen science' hold promise for bringing together communities and fostering the awe, fascination, and curiosity that draws us outside and contributes to our well-being (you may enjoy that cold, crisp November air more than you think!).
Psychologists are working to understand how our relationship with nature influences our psychological health and the health of the planet. By finding ways to reconnect people with the natural environment, it's possible that we can inspire more conservation efforts for local green spaces. And the good news is that this type of activity is likely to make us happy as well.
To learn more about the research on individual differences in nature relatedness, happiness, and environmental behaviour, visit naturerelatedness.ca, or come to the "Mind Gains: Nature and your brain" session (TD3) on Thursday, November 15th, 2:00-3:30 pm with Melissa Lem (MD), Alan Logan (ND), and Elizabeth Nisbet (PhD).
Dr. Elizabeth K. Nisbet is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trent University in Peterborough, an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, and an avid (and happy) nature enthusiast.