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People underestimate the psychological benefits of spending time in nature. That’s according to Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski who say the consequence is that people spend less time outside in green spaces than they would do otherwise: this undermines their affiliation with the natural world and reduces the likelihood that they will care about the environment.
One hundred and fifty Carleton University students participated in what they thought was a study of “personality and impressions of the campus area”. Carleton is located in Ottawa, with a green corridor that runs through the city located nearby. Half the students took a 17 minute walk – either along a canal path near the campus to an arboretum, or via underground tunnels used on campus for getting around. Afterwards they completed questionnaires about how they felt. The other students predicted how they would feel, either after the outdoor, nature-filled walk or after the tunnel walk, but they didn’t actually take the walk. Both routes were equally familiar to all the students. The study was conducted on dry Autumn days with temperatures ranging from 2.5 to 14.6 degrees Celsius.
The key findings are that students felt more positive emotions after the natural walk than they did after the tunnel walk, but that those in the forecasting condition underestimated the positive benefits of a natural walk and overestimated the positive benefits of the tunnel walk. The students in the natural walk condition also reported feeling more connected to nature, an association that was mediated by their more positive emotions.
A second study was similar to the first, but this time the students who took the walks were the same ones who made predictions about how they’d feel afterwards. Also, different indoor and outdoor routes were used. Exactly the same findings were observed – students felt in a better mood after outdoor, natural walks and more connected with nature, yet they failed to anticipate the magnitude of these benefits.
“Together our results are consistent with the idea that, although people are innately drawn to nature, a general disconnection prevents them from fully anticipating nature’s hedonic benefits,” the researchers said. “When people forgo the happiness benefits of nearby nature, they also neglect their nature relatedness, a construct strongly associated with environmentally sustainable attitudes and behaviours.” A weakness of their argument, as they acknowledge, is that there’s no evidence yet that time spent in nature leads to long-term changes in one’s affiliation with the natural world.
The findings come as the UK government is seeking to revise the country’s planning laws to make it easier to build on green land. The results show the quandary faced by a small, densely populated island. Green, open spaces are vital to our psychological health, which argues in favour of strict planning laws. Yet such laws can lead to dense development with fewer pockets of urban greenery. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of these green oases in urban environments. As Nisbet and Zelenski observe: “Our findings suggest that even natural spaces in urban settings can increase happiness; the grandeur of national parks is not required.”
Nisbet, E., and Zelenski, J. (2011). Underestimating Nearby Nature: Affective Forecasting Errors Obscure the Happy Path to Sustainability. Psychological Science, 22 (9), 1101-1106 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418527