Photo: Doctors discover the

Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet heeds her own advice, spending regular time in nature.

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.

June 26, 2013

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Jul 04, 2013
11:25 AM

It’s all so simple and common sense and I think anyone realizes that getting outside for ‘some fresh air’ as our parents use to say is a good thing. But until you can shift the culture away from technological gadgets which although make life easier they also make us lazier, most people won’t get outside. David Suzuki had a great 30x30 Nature Challenge to encourage people to experience the benefits of nature. But when you look at school bike parking and see it empty but hundreds of cars lined up to drop off their kids? Maybe the schools should promote parents cycling with or walking their kids to school. Good for the kids. Good for the environment and maybe inconvenient but good for the mom/dad or nanny too — if someone escorts them to school. Cultural shift required.

Jun 26, 2013
8:48 PM

I agree, Gerald. Biophilia indeed provides a rich philosophical foundation for current research on human-nature interactions. E.O. Wilson’s theory has been a major inspiration. The studies on image preferences (savana hypothesis) and conditioned response to phobias are particularly relevant to our research on individual differences. The psychology work on predicting emotion (“affective forecasting”), however, is fairly new, but if there are empirical studies in other disciplines that examine these prediction errors, I’d appreciate getting the citations.

Jun 26, 2013
12:19 PM

Interesting research, but as someone who’s been working on “The Ecology of Happiness” (not doing individual research, but at the level of synthesizing research findings and communicating them), I must say that the finding that surprised her had been found in similar studies (on biophilia), at least 10 years ago. Still, that only makes it all the more obvious how much work — or should I say fun, given how it’s all about understanding the positives of nature and action to get us out into green surroundings and our surroundings more green? — still needs to be done. And good work it is, for the sake of the world as well as ourselves.

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