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Noticing nature during your daily routine can help boost well-being, study finds

A growing body of research has shown that contact with nature can enhance different aspects of wellbeing, including life satisfaction, a sense of meaning in life, vitality and both psychological and social wellbeing.

Feeling stressed? Anxious? Fatigued? You may want to spend more time this weekend observing nature. It just might lift your spirits.

And, no, you don’t have to go anywhere special to reap those benefits.

In a study published earlier this month, Canadian researchers found that when people simply take brief snippets of time out of their everyday lives to notice the natural world around them, their general happiness and well-being tends to increase. 

“This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” said Holli-Anne Passmore, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student in psychology at the University of British Columbia, in a released statement. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.” 

Substantially happier

A growing body of research has shown that contact with nature can enhance different aspects of wellbeing, including life satisfaction, a sense of meaning in life, vitality and both psychological and social wellbeing.

“Even after controlling for variables, including weather, time of day, activity, companionship, location type and day of the week, people are, in general, substantially happier when they are in nature, compared to when they are in a human-built environment,” Passmore and her colleagues write in their paper.

People in a nature-based environment also tend to show more pro-social behavior — a willingness to help others in need, for example.

But most of those past studies measured the immediate response of nature on people’s well-being. The current study was designed to assess the effects over an extended period (two weeks) — and while people went about their everyday lives.

Stopping to notice

For the study, Passmore and her colleagues recruited 395 undergraduate students and randomly assigned them to one of three groups. One group was instructed to take photos (a minimum of 10) for two weeks of any items in nature that caught their attention — a houseplant, a chipmunk, a dandelion growing in a sidewalk crack, or the sun shining through a window — and to then upload the photos to the study’s website, along with a brief description of the emotions that each evoked. A second group was directed to the same, but with human-made objects. The third (control) group was told to continue their regular routine for the two weeks.

The students were told not to step outside their usual routine to take their photographs and not to worry about their artistic merit.

In all, more than 2,500 photos and accompanying descriptions of emotions were posted on the study’s website — almost an equal number from each of the two photography groups. The researchers coded the responses as either “positive” or “negative” and then coded them again for emotional themes. There were 16 positive themes and 14 negative ones.

“The difference in participants’ well-being — their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than participants in the group noticing how human-built objects made them feel and the control group,” said Passmore.

Specifically, the nature photos were significantly more likely to be associated with emotional themes of awe, freedom, hope, peacefulness and rejuvenation. “It made me feel free because the sky is endless,” wrote one of the participants. “Made me feel hopeful, the Sun never stops rising. Corny, I know,” wrote another. 

Photos of the human-made objects, on the other hand, were significantly more likely to be associated with emotional themes of fashion, safety, pride, disgust, envy, stress, fatigue, guilt and annoyance. “These are my glasses that I got last month when I was in Taiwan. Jennifer Aniston has the same pair so it makes me feel stylish,” wrote a participant. “I feel guilty for having a closet full of so many clothes yet I continue to buy more to add when others are so underprivileged,” wrote another.”

Interestingly, the descriptions that accompanied the human-made objects tended to be a response to a memory, activity or function that the person associated with the object. Here’s an example: “Happy and connected to past experiences. Both of these bottles were consumed in celebratory settings and when I look at them I’m instantly brought back to these good times with friends family.”

In contrast, the descriptions associated with the nature photos were mostly emotional reactions triggered directly by nature itself. Here’s an example: “Watching the water flow down the creek; it made me feel optimistic for my future. I also enjoyed the sound of the water rushing onwards.”

Limitations and implications

This study comes with caveats, of course. Most notably, it involved only college students — and mostly women. The findings, therefore, may not be applicable to other populations.

Still, the findings are in line with other research on this topic. More importantly, they suggest, as Passmore and her colleagues write in their paper, “that nature-based well-being interventions do not necessarily have to involve whole scale lifestyle changes, travelling to more ‘natural’ areas, nor modification of one’s immediate environment in order to be effective.” 

All that’s required is simply noticing, and attending to, the nature in our daily routines.

So, pay attention this weekend. You may not discover heaven in a wildflower, but you might just find a moment of peace.

For more information: The study was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, where it is, unfortunately, behind a paywall.

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