It’s been a little while since my last post because I’ve been enjoying the summer weather theses days. Living in the Midwest, the summer is a pleasant break from chilly overcast days that stretch on for weeks. Don’t get me wrong–I actually love the cold to a degree–but summer brings with it a ton of green and the chance to spend some more time in nature.
This year, I’ve been loving my garden. After years of city apartment living, I finally moved into an apartment with a big enough balcony that gets plenty of sun. Nothing could get between me and fresh vegetable bliss. I loaded up on various pots and buckets, potting soil, and tons of seedlings from the nearby nursery.
Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, and herbs are all growing tall, and every morning, I make a cup of coffee and spend an hour reading on my super green balcony. (Oh, the photos within this post are all from my garden.)
It got me wondering about the psychology of connecting with nature. I had heard about the benefits of nature to mental health, but I wasn’t sure how much of that was true and how much just sounded nice. So I searched around for some research and came across this interesting study highlighting both the benefits of nature and a pesky cognitive bias.
Benefits of Being in Nature
So, first, it turns out that there’s some truth to the nature-is-good-for-you thing.
The question is: if contact with nature is so good, do people make a point to do it?
People Underestimate Nature’s Benefits
There’s a concept in social psychology called affective forecasting. The gist is that people tend to be pretty bad at predicting their future feelings. That is, some things seem like they’ll make us really happy, but they don’t actually boost happiness that much. And some things seem like they’ll be a huge bummer, but they don’t turn out to be so bad. Our feelings are fickle, and we’re more confident than we should be about what makes us happy and miserable.
That’s relevant here because we know that connecting with nature boosts people’s happiness. But if affective forecasting errors happen, it means that people might not realize this particular power of nature. This is where our study comes in.
In 2011, Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski published some studies that tested whether people realized how good nature can make them feel.
In these studies, participants first arrived in a psychology lab to fill out some questionnaires, and then had to walk to another building. But the researchers gave them a specific route to take. One route was a pleasant outdoor path through greenery and along a river. The other route was entirely indoors and utilized tunnels that connected the two buildings. Both walks, though, took about 20 minutes and were equally familiar to the participants.
The first is result shouldn’t be surprising by now. People who took the outdoor nature walk were in better moods than people who took an indoor walk.
But they also wanted to see if people expected their walking path to affect their mood. When asking people before they took their walks, people did not expect that the outdoor walk would boost their mood so much.
See Some Green!
The lesson behind all of this is that we don’t seem to appreciate the very real benefits of connecting with nature. Sure, we may think that it’s physically helpful to get outside and move around, but we fail to appreciate just how much it affects our mental health as well.
So, get on out there and hug a tree! Just be sure to put on sunscreen first.