By Colin A. Capaldi, Department of Psychology, Carleton University
From declining biodiversity to rising sea levels, we are inundated with seemingly endless news about the deteriorating health of our planet. Terms like ecoanxiety and ecoparalysis have emerged into the lexicon to capture the sense of dread and powerlessness that might be experienced in the face of these unprecedented problems. Of course, not everyone is as concerned about environmental issues like climate change as others might be. But for the nature lovers among us, there are many reasons to be discouraged, worried, and upset.
Recent research from the Carleton University Happy Lab (CUHL) offers hope for those who would rather listen to the melodies of birds instead of scrolling through tweets; gaze upon the star-filled sky instead of staring at a laptop screen in Starbucks; or smell the blossoming spring flowers instead of synthetic perfumes. Collating results from dozens of studies with over 8,000 individuals in total, we found that people who feel more subjectively connected to nature tend to be happier; they report greater satisfaction with life, more positive emotions, and a greater sense of vitality on average. Far from insignificant, these results suggest that a person’s connection to the natural world is as important of a predictor of happiness as one’s education, marital status, or physical attractiveness.
Why are the nature connected happier? One potential answer is that they spend more time in nature. A substantial body of research shows that spending even brief amounts of time in natural environments can boost emotional well-being. For instance, a previous study conducted by Carleton professor (and my PhD supervisor) Dr. John Zelenski and CUHL alumna Dr. Lisa Nisbet found that students who were randomly assigned to take a brief walk outdoors in nature reported more positive emotions than students assigned to walk indoors through the campus tunnel system. Nature lovers may be happier because they reap the benefits of being in nature more often than those who are not as connected to the natural world.
Although people’s connection to nature tends to be fairly stable over time, it can change in the moment and be strengthened via increased nature contact. Thus, the implications are fairly obvious. Whether it is finding a few minutes each day to go outside, to bringing elements of nature indoors (e.g., adding plants to your home), connecting with the natural world is a relatively easy, cheap, and effective way to boost well-being. A growing body of research is also highlighting the benefits of having green space near one’s home. With more and more Canadians living in urban areas, it is important that enclaves of nearby nature are available to city residents for them to take advantage of.
Beyond individual well-being, these findings also have important implications for the well-being of the environment as those who feel more connected to nature are, unsurprisingly, more likely to value and want to protect it. Instead of it being a zero-sum game where our happiness has to come at the expense of the environment, we are increasingly learning that the well-being of each is inherently dependent on the other.
Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 976. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976
Nisbet, E. K., & Zelenski, J. M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychological Science, 22, 1101-1106. http://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611418527