by guest blogger Dr. Elizabeth K. Nisbet, who studies the connection between nature, happiness, and the health of the planet
I love fall. The crunch of leaves underfoot drowns out the noise of nearby traffic. The bare trees make it easier to spot birds and squirrels busily preparing for winter. The first frost is a hint of the snow to come (although for some, it has already arrived!) and the promise of crisp, sunny days ahead. The risk of frost this week had me out in the backyard, in the dark, hurriedly harvesting all the unripe tomatoes from my little garden patch. Pounds of still-green cherry tomatoes will sit in paper bags on my kitchen counter, ripening over the coming weeks. A garden tomato in mid-December is an underrated luxury.
I know that many people dread the onset of cooler weather and shorter days, as winter approaches. Indeed, when boots, hats, and mittens are needed, the outdoors may be less inviting; hibernation seems like a better option. Even on sunny days, many of us don’t always spend much time outdoors. Our worklife, chores, and errands are usually carried out inside, separating us from the natural world. Unfortunately, without a regular dose of nature, we might be missing out on ways to increase our happiness.
How often do we come home at the end of a hectic day and sit in front of the TV or computer to “relax?” Is this really relaxing? Do you feel happier and more energized afterwards? My colleagues and I have been conducting studies using the outdoor and indoor spaces on our university campus, testing people’s moods and levels of happiness in these different types of environments. It turns out that when people are asked to predict how they’ll feel after a short walk outside in nature, they make some errors in those predictions, shortchanging nature’s beneficial effects. Most of us know that we’ll probably enjoy a walk outside more than an indoor walk, but in our studies we find that mood is even better than expected after being outside for 10 to 15 minutes (people also enjoy being indoors less than they expected to). These “errors” in our expectations and our underestimates of nature’s happiness benefits might explain why we so often avoid nature.
In fact, our studies show that spending time in nature or going for a walk outdoors is a mood booster and makes us feel more vital and alive. If we could think about our time outside as more than “getting exercise,” and instead consider nearby nature—our backyard, neighborhood park, or urban forest—as a place to nurture our personal happiness, perhaps we’d spend more time outdoors instead of trying to relax and restore our mood indoors. This tendency to underestimate the happiness nature has to offer has consequences beyond our own health. The more connected or “nature related” we are, the more we are motivated to spend time outdoors. And the more time we spend outdoors, the more motivated we are to protect our natural environment. So, connecting with nature not only influences our physical and mental health, but the health of the planet, as well.
Although I study this phenomenon, I too underestimate how darn good it feels being outside and connecting with nature. I sometimes dread the idea of going for a run outside or for a long walk with the dogs, particularly on chilly or rainy days. “I’ll make it a short one,” I think, and prepare to brave the elements. But, once I’m outside, something funny happens: Without fail, after a few minutes, I completely forget about my plan to cut things short. Instead, I get caught up in the moment, captivated by the rich colorful tapestry of nature and fascinated by the textures and sounds around me. And I always end up walking longer than I planned. I’m learning gradually, “erring” less often. And I always arrive home feeling healthier and happier than I expected.
Dr. Elizabeth K. Nisbet studies individual differences in “nature relatedness” and the links between human-nature relationships, happiness, and sustainable behavior. Her research encompasses personality, social, health, and environmental psychology. She is an instructor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada.