This research explores the links among nature, subjective ‘nature relatedness’, happiness, and environmentally sustainable attitudes and behaviours.  Much research suggests that exposure to nature can have benefits for humans. For example, studies have found that nature can reduce stress, improve moods, contribute to physical health, restore attention and self-control, etc. There may be some differences depending on the type of nature, weather, etc., but on balance, the effects of nature seem beneficial. These findings are sometimes explained using ideas from evolution. The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ suggests that humans have an innate need for other living things and have evolved preferences for the natural world because it resembles the environments of our evolutionary history. That is, people began living in cities and separate from nature only recently. Because we evolved in natural settings, we still thrive in them.  This notion also helps explain why our physical and psychological disconnection from nature can be problematic. As we separate ourselves from nature, we miss out on its potential benefits, and we may begin to care less about it.

We have studied these ideas by creating a personality measure called the ‘nature relatedness scale’. People who score high on nature relatedness appreciate the connections among all living things, including humans. They see themselves as intimately connected to the rest of nature. They tend to spend more time in natural settings, and may enjoy this experience more than others.  (That doesn’t mean they love the annoyances of nature, like mosquitoes, but they do understand their importance in the grand scheme.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have found that people high in nature relatedness are also more likely to behave in ways that help protect nature. That is, they value environmentally sustainable behaviour and policies, and tend to live lifestyles that minimize their ecological footprint and damage to the natural environment. Perhaps a bit less obviously, highly nature related people also report being happier. This is especially true when happiness is conceptualized as frequent pleasant emotions, vitality, and a personal sense of autonomy, growth, and purpose. (Nature relatedness is less consistent in predicting life satisfaction and a lack of unpleasant emotions and depressive symptoms, other things that might contribute to an overall sense of happiness.)

After discovering that these desirable things were associated with nature relatedness, we wondered if it was possible to increase it, and if happiness and sustainable behaviour would then follow. Like most aspects of personality, it is hard to change nature relatedness over the long term, but we have seen some hints. For example, students who took courses in Environmental Studies, Biology, etc. seemed to increase their nature relatedness more than students in other kinds of classes (e.g., Psychology and English). This increased nature relatedness also seemed to bolster their sense of vitality and interest in environmentally sustainable behaviour. This conclusion remains somewhat tentative, however, because people who took the environmental courses also started higher in nature relatedness. Our methods did not allow for the ‘gold standard’ of random assignment, so we must be cautious in interpreting results.  Our current and future research will try to nail this down more conclusively!

We have had a bit more luck in conclusively increasing nature relatedness in the short term. For example, we’ve taken research participants on 15-minute walks through natural areas near campus (e.g., along the Rideau River or Canal) or completely indoors using the university buildings and tunnel system. Walking outdoors in natural areas boosts people’s sense of nature relatedness (especially when combined with a mindfulness instruction) and their moods. (There’s a helpful hint here –a short walk outside in nature can make you feel happy!) This is again suggestive; if we could increase nature relatedness more long term, it might also increase happiness in the long term, but those studies still need to be done.  There is another interesting aspect of our walking studies. We asked some research participants to predict how they would feel taking walks in built vs. natural environments.  Although people correctly rated the outdoor walks as likely to be more pleasant, they still underestimated how much better the outdoor walks would make them feel. (Helpful hint #2, even if you don’t think the outdoor nature walk will really work well for you, give it a try –you might be wrong!) This failure to appreciate the benefits of nature seems to fit with one of those early ideas: people have become so disconnected from nature that they’ve forgotten how good it can be.

We are now investigating how short term exposure to nature (and the temporary sense of nature relatedness that it creates) can also influence people to behave in more cooperative and environmentally sustainable ways. We have observed these patterns, and are now working on trying to more fully understand how and why they work.

In the end, there is more research to be done, but the results to date suggest that there may be a happy path to sustainability, at least for some people. That is, if people could spend more time in nature or increase their sense of nature relatedness, they may also become happier and behave in more sustainable ways.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

For more details, these articles all openly available (and more sources on our publications page):

Zelenski, J. M., Dopko, R. L., & Capaldi, C. A. (2015). Cooperation is in our nature: Nature exposure may promote cooperative and environmentally sustainable behaviorJournal of Environmental Psychology42, 24-31.

Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: A meta-analysisFrontiers in Psychology, 5:976.

Nisbet, E. K., & Zelenski, J. M. (2013). The NR-6: A new brief measure of nature relatednessFrontiers in Psychology, 4:813.