Want to feel a bit more optimistic about the future?
Try taking a nature walk this weekend. According to a new study, spending time in a natural as opposed to a “man-made” environment can boost our optimism by up to a sixth.
Being in an all-natural landscape has a similar effect on our sense of self-control, the study also found.
“This is an important result because delay of gratification is an essential ingredient for promoting individual and social change pertaining to, for instance, healthy lifestyles, antisocial behaviour, resource conservation and population growth,” write the team of neuroscientists and psychologists from VU University Amsterdam who conducted the study.
The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences).
For the study, the Dutch researchers conducted three separate types of experiments. The first took place in a laboratory. Volunteer participants were randomly assigned to view photos of either a natural or an urban setting. They were then given a choice between two monetary options: to receive 100 euros immediately, for example, or 150 euros in 10-euro increments over 90 days.
Psychologists use this monetary decision task in studies to measure how much individuals value — or discount — the future.
“Humans have an evolved bias to prefer immediate rewards over long-term rewards,” the authors of the current study explain in their paper. “This universal and surprisingly strong tendency to discount the future is a contributing factor to various individual and societal challenges, such as obesity, substance abuse, pollution, resource exploitation and over-population. An important scientific question is whether people’s discount rates vary, and if so why.”
The researchers found in that first experiment that people’s discount rates did vary. Those participants who viewed the natural landscapes were up to 16 percent more likely to opt to wait for the larger monetary reward than those who viewed the urban landscapes.
To test whether similar results would occur outside the lab, the researchers randomly assigned another group of volunteers to a five-minute walk in either a natural setting or through the streets of Amsterdam. Once again, those in the “nature” group were significantly more likely to defer the monetary reward.
The findings were the same even after controlling for age and gender. And, although the participants who were exposed to a natural environment reported a more positive mood after the experience than those exposed to an urban environment, mood was not found to be a factor in the monetary choices.
An evolutionary explanation
Why does nature help us delay gratification?
“Natural landscapes, especially lush ones, are intrinsically rewarding and enjoyable as they provide cues of predictability and resource abundance, at least for ancestral humans, whose psychology is likely to be still affecting modern humans,” suggest the authors of the study. “By contrast, urban landscapes, which are entirely novel on an evolutionary time scale, are inherently unstable, and convey the perception of intense social competition among humans for all kinds of resources, such as status, goods and mates.”
The study’s findings have important implications, according to its authors.
“Many of the problems that society faces today have to do with the typical human tendency to value the present more than the future,” wrote one of the study’s co-authors, psychologist Mark van Vugt, on the Psychology Today website Thursday. “For instance, will I eat my cake now or exercise first and then eat it? Do I want to start a family now or wait until I have finished my education? Do I fill up my car with petrol or purchase an electrical car?”
“Our results show,” he added, “that giving people the opportunity to immerse themselves in a green environment may shift their time horizon from the here and now to the future. With the majority of the citizens of this planet now living in large, urban areas we must find clever ways to bring people in regular contact with nature. Particularly for our children regular outdoor experiences may be important to as they are more likely to discount the future.”
You can download and read the study at the Proceedings of the Royal Society’s website.