Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet is an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at Trent University in Peterborough and an adjunct professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her work investigates the environmental and health benefits of individual differences in connectedness with the natural environment.
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Docs Talk: Tell us a bit about your latest research on people and nature.
Dr. Nisbet: We've been studying human connectedness with nature—an idea we call "nature relatedness."
Nature relatedness involves the thoughts we have about our identity and how it includes (or does not include) the natural environment. It also involves our feelings about animals and plants, and our beliefs about how humans should use natural resources. It is informed by our experiences in nature—how comfortable we are in nature and how much time we spend there. We measure how people differ in nature relatedness (some are very drawn to nature and consider it an important part of their lives, while others are less interested) and link these differences with behaviours and well-being.
Docs Talk: What can you tell us about people who have a high sense of nature relatedness?
Dr. Nisbet: People with a strong sense of connection to nature report more happiness than those who are less connected. A high degree of nature relatedness is also associated with more environmentally protective behavior; if someone feels connected with their natural environment they are more likely to protect it. Environmental education and opportunities for nature contact are important for cultivating (or improving) connectedness. Regular time in nature is good for our physical and mental health, as well as for the planet. And as we learn more about our local ecosystems, we gain a better understanding of our interconnectedness with nature and the importance of keeping our environment healthy.
What we find inspiring about this research is that there seems to be a potential "happy path" to sustainability: the positive feelings we experience when in nature keep us coming back, motivated to protect the places we enjoy.
Docs Talk: Did any of your findings surprise you?
Dr. Nisbet: My colleagues and I were somewhat surprised to discover that despite how good nature is for our physical and mental health, we may be not be taking advantage of it. In our studies comparing the well-being effects of walking either indoors or outdoors, we found that people under-predict how happy a short walk in nature (even nearby nature, such as a city park) will make them.
We may not think of nature as a source of happiness or a mood-booster and this might be affecting our decisions about where to spend our time. Rather than surfing the Internet, checking email, or watching TV at the end of a long day, we should consider getting out into nature for a mood lift.
Docs Talk: So the take-home message is get out in nature to find happiness. Any advice for our readers?
Dr. Nisbet: The key is to make it convenient and easy. Most of us lead very busy lives and struggle to find time to relax. We need to find ways to incorporate nature time into our regular routines, so that it becomes habit, just like any other health-promoting behaviour.
Canada has spectacularly beautiful wilderness to enjoy, but we also shouldn't discount "nearby nature"—city parks, walkways, bike paths, backyards, gardens and even our pets and plants—as a source of happiness. Commuting along a bike or walking path to work, spending time with family in a nearby park or taking a midday work break outside, even for a few minutes, is good for us. The nature all around us has health and well-being benefits. Happiness is truly in our nature.