The nature-happiness connection

August 2, 2016

Feeling blue? Injecting a bit of green into your day might help

When the sun is bright, wild roses blush at passersby, and grass forms a lush green carpet underfoot, it’s easy to imagine the connection between nature and wellbeing. But just how much exposure to nature does it take to make an impact?

image-story-hollianne-nature“There’s a solid base of experimental research that says if you spend time in nature, you’re going to be happier,” says Holli-Anne Passmore, a psychology alumna and sessional instructor who is working on her PhD at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus in Kelowna. “But the bulk of the experimental research that has been done has involved a one-shot deal. Subjects did things like spending 15 minutes in a natural environment or taking a one-hour walk in nature and then researchers measured a series of dependent variables related to well-being.”

So during her undergraduate degree, Holli-Anne volunteered as a research assistant with Andrew Howell, associate professor, Psychology, to explore the impact that longer-term nature involvement could have on well-being. During a two-week period, they asked one group of participants to spend any extra time they might have in nature whenever and wherever they could. A second group was used a control group for comparison.

“It was essentially a positive psychology intervention,” explains Holli-Anne. “The measurable difference on positive affect (happiness), feelings of elevation, and a sense of meaning between the two groups was huge.”

It turned out that the positive impact nature had on well-being didn’t require people to go anywhere special—when Holli-Anne asked the nature group what they did and where they went, most said they walked in their neighbourhood park, or spend time in their backyards.

Intrigued, Holli-Anne decided to expand the study that was published in 2014 for her master’s thesis at UBC. This time she used three groups. One was a business-as-usual control, and the other two groups had similar instructions: don’t change your daily routine, but simply to notice how the objects/scenes around you made you feel (one groups focused on nature and the other on human-built objects). When an object/scene evoked a strong emotion, participants took a picture of it and uploaded to the study's website along with a description of the emotions.

“The nature condition people had more elevating experiences, felt more connected to life in general (including to other people), and had greater pro-social tendencies,” says Holli-Anne, of the research that is currently in press. “As in the first study, the difference between the groups was large.”

But it wasn’t from spending more time in nature. People in the nature condition didn't report spending more time in nature than people in other two groups did. It was simply because they paid more attention to nature they saw in their everyday lives.

Holli-Anne also examined the descriptions of emotions she received that were attached to the nearly 2,600 photos participants took for the study. She found that there were differences in the kinds of emotions people experienced depending on the condition they had been randomly assigned. Nature appeared to elicit emotions like rejuvenation, peace, and hope; while people were likely to respond to human-built objects with feelings of annoyance, stress and fatigue.  She plans to also examine the photos themselves—ranging from a huge double rainbow to a single bright leaf, and from stuffed toys to chairs—to look for relationships between type of nature or human-built object and specific emotions.

“There are so many benefits you can realize in your everyday life, just by walking outside and looking at the trees—no matter what the season,” says Holli-Anne, who plans to continue this line of research in her PhD dissertation and would ultimately like to see nature intervention included with other validated positive psychology interventions such as including gratitude, counting your blessings, and cultivating optimism.

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