How Nature Makes You a Happier Person

Photo by Kalen Emsley on Unsplash

People have always had a thing for nature.

Nearly 40 years ago, E.O. Wilson, a prominent American biologist, introduced the biophilia hypothesis: our love for nature is the very essence of our humanity that has many psychological benefits, such as happiness and sympathy towards others.

It was around the same time that Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, psychologists from Ann Arbor, started collecting empirical evidence to this claim laying the foundation for the field known today as environmental psychology. In their book With People in Mind, published at the turn of the century, the Kaplans summarize everything they learned during the thirty years of research in a convincing and straightforward message: interaction with nature is not just a pleasant pastime — it is a vital necessity.

Roger S. Ulrich, one of the most cited researchers in healthcare design, knows something about the positive effect that nature can have on human health. Around the same time that the Kaplans launched their research program in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Urlich started working in the hospitals studying how patients recovering from surgeries responded to plants in their rooms.

In his most well-known study, Ulrich found that patients who underwent abdominal surgery and stayed in the rooms looking out on a natural scene recovered faster and needed fewer painkillers than patients in similar rooms with windows facing a brick wall.

Ulrich wasn’t the only person who found that nature can heal. In 2008, two researchers from Kansas State University found that the mere presence of houseplants in the hospital rooms allowed patients to recover with fewer painkillers and with less anxiety compared to patients in the rooms without plants. Amusingly, patients with houseplants in their rooms actively interacted with plants by watering them, removing dead leaves, and moving to the window for better sunlight.

Psychologist documenting the benefits of nature on our wellbeing seem to agree that one of the most critical aspects of our relationship with nature is the sense of connection with it. In 2014, researchers from Carleton University in Ottawa carried out a massive meta-analysis spanning three dozens of studies with more than 8000 participants. They found that those who are more connected to nature were happier and engaged more in pro-environmental behavior (e.g., buying “green” products or practicing recycling).

So, if feeling connected to nature makes us happier and more caring about houseplants, can it make us care about others?

A massive experiment designed by the research group under the guidance of Dacher Keltner — one of the leading experts in the psychology of positive emotions — aimed to answer precisely this question.

Keltner’s hypothesis was simple: beautiful nature leads to positive emotions, which, in turn, stimulates altruistic behavior.

To test the hypothesis, Keltner’s group first categorized a set of pre-selected images with nature into more beautiful and less beautiful ones.

The resulting images were then used to create videos representing beautiful and not-so-beautiful nature, where more beautiful condition simply means more water, presence of sky, and a mixture of different colors.

More beautiful nature (Luca Bravo on Unsplash) and less beautiful nature (Imat Bagja Gumilar on Unsplash)

The researchers then hired participants and split them into two groups: one watching the more beautiful nature video, and one watching the less beautiful nature video.

Finally, they make participants play the dictator game that went as follows: the experimenters randomly grouped the participants into pairs and assigned them either with the role of a dictator or a recipient. At the beginning of the game, dictators received 10 points, each of which equaled 5 cents that would be added to the final payment.

The researchers then told the dictators that they could give any amount (including zero) to their partners, but their final compensation would depend on how many points they would have remaining at the end of the game.

Interestingly, those watching the more beautiful nature video gave away significantly more points than those watching less beautiful nature. Moreover, the “generous dictators” also reported higher levels of positive emotions, confirming Keltner’s hypothesis that a beautiful view leads to positive emotions and hence more altruistic behavior.

In another experiment, Keltner’s group aimed to test whether the presence of beautiful houseplants in a room can call out to better human qualities in participants. For that purpose, they decorated the lab room either with more attractive or less attractive houseplants and invited the participants on the pretext that they needed to fill out a questionnaire.

Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

While participants were filling out the forms, the experimenter left the room, returned with origami papers, and began folding a Japanese paper crane. At some point, participants notified the experimenter that they had finished the questionnaire.

The experimenter replied that the study was complete, and participants were free to leave unless they wanted to help with making cranes for the victims of the earthquake in Japan.

After that, the experimenter continued folding the paper crane, while participants had a choice of either leaving the lab or helping with the task.

In the end, the experimenters counted the number of paper cranes folded by participants from both groups. The results were similar to previous experiments: participants who completed the study in a lab with more beautiful plants showed more helping behavior and folded more paper cranes for victims on the 2011 earthquake in Japan than participants who completed the study in a lab with less beautiful plants.

You probably wonder how exactly you can use this knowledge in your everyday life. Do you need to turn into a gardener wannabe? Or buy every plant you can find on the Ikea website? Or go out in the wild hunting for the most beautiful scenery to become a better person?

Well, breathe freely. You don’t need to take any heroic actions to feel the immediate effect of nature on your wellbeing. As science presented here and other research suggest, even low-effort interaction with nature — be it watering plants, walking in a park, and watching nature documentaries — have a profound positive impact on our emotions and environmental awareness, even in people with depression.

So, the best thing you can do today to feel more connected to nature and hence happier is to simply start paying more attention to the everyday nature you encounter on your way to the office, during lunch break, or in the backyard of your house.

Gary Snyder, one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, was a big fan of the idea that we, humans, need to connect with nature to find happiness on Earth. “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home”, he writes in The Practice of the Wild, the book that made him famous not only as a poet but as an environmental thinker.

The good news is you don’t need to be a poet to appreciate the remarkable role of nature in our lives. Just remember a simple truth — it’s not important how far you’re ready to go to see the beautiful view.

What’s important is how much love you’re willing to give to a single flower on your windowsill.

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