Motivation and emotion/Book/2013/Nature and emotion
How can nature be used to improve your emotions and your life?
Not so long ago, spending time in nature was not something you forgot to do or had to deliberately remember to do. Humans would spend their days working the land, tending to their garden or caring for their animals. A little further back, and contact with nature was the only option; from sunrise to sunset. However, with the advances of modern technology, natural environments are continually being destroyed and replaced with concrete and glass. Each day many students will wake up, use their computer, television or smartphone for a few hours, walk a few steps to their car, drive to university, spend hours indoors, drive to work or back home, use their electronic devices for a few more hours, and then go to bed. Many of us have forgotten how much fun it was to play outside as a child, how cathartic going for a walk can be, and how imperative spending time in nature is for our physiological and psychological well-being. With more than 3 million Australians suffering from depression or anxiety (Beyondblue, 2013), perhaps it is time to pay attention to how our lack of affiliation with nature is affecting our emotions. This chapter of Motivation and emotion: Improve your life will explore the relevant psychological theory and research, show you why nature is so important to your overall quality of life and how to include nature in your everyday life.
What is nature?
Nature is the phenomena of the physical world. It encompasses subatomic particles smaller than an atom, all the way up to the totality of the universe; and everything in between. Nature is often distinguished from the unnatural, man-made or artificial. In general language, nature includes the planets, the earth, geology, weather, ecosystems, oceans, rivers, lakes, plants and animals.
How do humans experience nature?
Humans can experience nature through all five of our senses; primarily sight, but also through smell, sound, touch and taste. As we will explore, modern humans significantly underestimate the impact that continually watching bright screens, smelling and inhaling pollution, hearing loud mechanical noises, never going barefoot and eating processed foods day in and day out can have on our emotions.
Nature and emotion
What are emotions?
Emotions are subjective states characterised by physiological measures and psychological conditions. In general terms, they are states such as happy, sad, angry, glad and excited.
What is emotional well-being?
Emotional well-being is generally viewed as a lack of physiological or psychological ill-health or distress. It is generally measured utilising self-report measures or non-self assessments by family members, friends, informants, psychologists, etc. (Sandvik, Diener & Seidlitz, 1993).
How can nature impact upon our emotions and our emotional well-being?
Affect describes an emotional state. Affect is fundamental to experience and behaviour; no significant experience or behaviour can occur without affect. Consequently, an individual's affective state is a crucial indicator of their continuing interaction with an environment (Ulrich, 1983). These ideas are employed in psychological research regarding the impact of nature upon human emotions. An individual's affective state clearly illustrates how the environment they are in has influenced their emotions and resulting behaviour. In research investigating the effects of nature on human well-being, numerous aspects of affective states are assessed. These include physiological measures such as blood pressure, and non-self assessments or self-reports of psychological and emotional well-being.
Research regarding the effect of the natural environment on human emotional well-being has evolutionary underpinnings. It is based on a general proposition that humans evolved in close contact with nature and that our modern disassociation with nature may be harming us more than we realise.
The biophilia hypothesis
Biophilia literally translates to the love of nature and of all living things. The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have an instinctive, innate and genetically-based connection with other living systems (Kahn, 1997). It has been described as the "urge to affiliate with other forms of life" (Kellert & Wilson, 1995). It is argued that the biophilia hypothesis has an evolutionary basis which has its roots in humans' early inhabitance of the savannas of East Africa (Kahn, 1997). Various aspects of this natural environment would have indicated survival and optimal well-being. For example, water would have attracted plants and animals; thereby not only providing essential hydration, but food as well, outcrops and hills provided vantage points from which to observe incoming threats, and brightly coloured flowers signified food sources. This evolutionary hypothesis has consistently found support in the relevant psychological research. For example, humans commonly prefer scenes that involve prominences overlooking open land, scatterings of trees and other vegetation, and bodies of water (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Wilson 1984).
The biophilia hypothesis has not been without criticism; particularly in relation to the evolutionary reasoning behind it (Hartig & Evans, 1993; Joye & De Block, 2011). However, regardless of the reasoning, the relevant research clearly demonstrates the positive effects of nature on emotions.
It has been argued that the best and most complete way to study and understand true biophilia, is to examine the biophilia of native peoples (Kahn, 1997). This stems from the observation that modern humans are significantly disconnected from nature in comparison to native humans (Shepard, 1996). Native biophilia is examined in indigenous communities and their connection with their natural surroundings. For example, observation of the Koyukon people of Northern Alaska uncovered such an intricate understanding and appreciation of their natural environment that it has been asserted that the expert hunter is as knowledgeable as a modern-day scientist; albeit in a different field. Furthermore, in order to hunt seals, the Koyukon people mimic the hunting behaviours of polar bears; who had perfected the method long before they had arrived (Nelson, 1993). The ways in which native peoples maintain a connection with the natural environment, the resulting benefits they reap and how they work alongside nature instead of against it can teach us how to do the same in our modern lives.
Disorders relating to nature
Seasonal Affective Disorder
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a modifier of major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. It is a reoccurring pattern of seasonal variation in mood, although this is not the case for all sufferers (Partonen & Lonnqvist, 1998). Lowest moods typically occur during the autumn or winter, improving in the spring or summer; though the reverse can also occur and modifications of the DSM-V are being discussed (Rosenthal, 2009). Symptoms typically include social withdrawal, decreased activity, sadness, anxiety and carbohydrate cravings (Partonen & Lonnqvist, 1998). SAD is most prevalent the winter months in parts of the world in which there is very little sun (Rosenthal, 2009). The standard therapy for SAD is bright-light treatment (Partonen & Lonnqvist, 1998), however it has also been demonstrated that physical exercise can improve symptoms, especially when combined with another treatment (Pinchasov, Shurgaja, Grischin & Putilov, 2000).
Nature Deficit Disorder
As the world becomes increasingly sterile and frightened of dirt and germs, children are being completely cocooned from the natural environment. Time-poor and busy parents place their children in front of the television or an iPad in order to keep them entertained, instead of allowing them to play outside and use their own imaginations. This phenomenon has been termed nature deficit disorder (Louv, 2010), and it has far reaching consequences. It has been suggested that concerns such as childhood obesity, bullying and depression are a reflection of our modern disassociation with nature (Sandry, 2013). Links have been found between a lack of time spent outdoors and a striking increase in childhood near-sightedness (Rose et al., 2008) and vitamin D deficiency (Huh & Gordon, 2008). It has even been suggested that our deficient connection with the natural environment has far reaching social implications; humans have completely forgotten that our very existence depends upon nature (Sandry, 2013). In order to fully understand life, children need to experience life itself first-hand, rather than through a screen or via the internet. However, it must be noted that nature deficit disorder is not recognised by the DSM-V and is speculation at this point in time.
The relevant research makes it very clear that spending time outside can be very beneficial in numerous ways.
General preference of the natural over the unnatural
Research has consistently found that humans prefer the natural environment to the unnatural or man-made.
Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) supported this proposition when they found that individuals generally prefer natural environment scenes more than built environment scenes and, furthermore, individuals prefer built environment scenes with water, trees and other vegetation over built environment scenes without these natural additions. Importantly, Kaplan and Kaplan employed numerous strategies in order to combat the methodological issues they faced when determining whether an individuals' preference of a scene was due to the overall natural environment of the scene or something in particular in that scene. These strategies were also passed on to Kaplan and Kaplan's students and colleges conducting similar research.
Restorative effects of nature
The restorative effects of a natural environment have been demonstrated reliably within the relevant literature. Contact with nature has been shown to improve numerous aspects of the physiological and psychological well-being of humans. Below is a small slice of the research illustrating these effects.
Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) explored the research conducted on this topic and found that spending a short amount of time in nature has been shown to produce physical well-being, reduced stress levels, relaxation and enjoyment. Additionally, longer amounts of time were associated with a higher appraisal of individuals' own home, job and overall life satisfaction. The researchers also found that individuals with easy access to nature were generally healthier than those without. Stress reduction after experiences in nature has been further confirmed in other studies (Ulrich, 1983).
Hartig, Mang and Evans (1991) examined the restorative effects of different environments within two studies; a quasi-experimental field study and a true experiment. The restorative effects measured included cognitive performance and self-reports of affective states, and physiological measures in the latter study. The conditions in the former study were backpacking in the wilderness, a non-wilderness holiday and a control group who simply maintained their usual routine. The latter experiment included urban, natural environment and passive relaxation conditions. Superior restorative effects were found in the conditions in both studies which involved expediences in nature, than those which did not.
Korpela, Hartig, Kaiser and Fuhrer (2001) found that when university students listed their favourite places and also unpleasant places; natural settings were overrepresented in favourite places and were unrepresented in unpleasant places. Additionally, natural settings were generally associated with restoration; particularly reflection on personal matters, being relaxed and forgetting everyday life and worries.
Furthermore, experiences in nature have been associated with recovery of the capacity to focus attention (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
The positive effects of nature on mental well-being are well established.
For example, horticultural therapy has long been employed with prison inmates, the elderly and the developmentally disabled, based on its therapeutic effects (Lewis, 1996). Wilderness experiences have been particularly successful in assisting those with mental illnesses. Witman (1987) found improved measures of cooperation and trust in a group of young people who were being treated for depression, adjustment reactions or substance abuse after a wilderness excursion, compared to a control group. 90% of individuals who participated in nature programs reported that the experience had assisted them in breaking free from various addictions including nicotine and chocolate (Kennedy & Minami, 1993). Psychiatric patients from mental health institutions were more likely to be discharged and displayed improved coping skills following wilderness adventure programs (Jerstad & Stelzer, 1973; Plakun, Tucker & Harris, 1981). However, it has been noted that the encouraging effects of nature experiences may be confounded by the other aspects of such programs such as group bonding and goal planning. Nevertheless, it is difficult to argue that the natural environment itself did not play a role in the effectiveness of such experiences (Frumkin, 2001).
Physiological and emotional effects of animals
The positive emotional consequences of time spent in nature can also be experienced through contact with animals.
The simple addition of an aquarium to a stressful environment can have both physiological and psychological effects. In an experiment which involved patients about to undergo oral surgery, simple contemplation of an aquarium was as effective as hypnosis on improving overall comfort and relaxation during the surgery, which has also been demonstrated to be very effective for relaxation (Katcher, Segal, & Beck, 1984). Importantly, the researchers controlled for various biases by comparing the reports of the double-blind surgeon and an observer with the self-reports of the patients. Furthermore, watching an aquarium has been found to significantly reduce the blood pressure of both normal and hypertensive patients (Katcher, Friedmann, Beck, & Lynch, 1983).
Concern for the natural environment
It has been demonstrated that some forms of emotional growth can be improved through contact with nature.
The broad range in values towards nature, based on age and cultural background among other variables, was investigated by Kellert (1996). A developmental trend from egocentric and domineering six year olds, to six-to-nine year olds with an increased awareness of the pain and suffering of other living things, and finally adolescents who displayed concern for conservation and ecological morality. Perhaps this suggests the importance of experience and affiliation with nature in moral development, particularly with reference to the natural environment. A child who is able to observe the frailty of nature first-hand is arguably more well-equipped to understand the broader implications of their actions than one who is not able to do so.
Gaps in the research
Although research into the effects of nature on human emotion is wide and varied, it is not sufficiently far reaching.
Research regarding nature has primarily been concerned with the visual effects of natural environment. This unfortunately neglects the smells and sounds, and even taste and touch, of nature, which certainly all have an impact (Ulrich, 1983). On a different note, it has been asserted that current measures of human emotional well-being are largely ignorant towards our reliance on the natural environment (Dasgupta, 2001).
Quiz - Do you need to add more nature to your life in order to improve your emotional well-being?
If you answer no to any of these questions - chances are you do!
With psychological theory and research supporting the positive effects of nature on physiological and psychological well-being, it is clear that adding some nature to your life is likely to improve your emotions and overall quality of life. Here are some ways to incorporate nature into your everyday life and reduce your risks of the negative consequences associated with a lack of contact with the natural environment:
Whether or not there is sufficient evidence to support the hypothesis that we all have a genetic predisposition to seek out the natural environment, the relevant research clearly demonstrates the numerous positive effects that nature can have on human emotional well-being. From the increasing rates of anxiety and depression to the frightening possibility of a new disorder resulting from a lack of contact with nature, it is clear that our modern, fast-paced and technology-driven lives are doing us no good. The outstanding physiological and psychological benefits of affiliation with nature demonstrated by the literature should encourage you to incorporate the natural environment into your daily life. As some researchers very involved in the relevant research have observed; technology may try to replace certain aspects of nature, but nature cannot truly be replaced as it is the fundamental bond between humans and other living things (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
- Try some yoga outside!
- Get outdoors and play with your pets - Animals and emotion & Animal assisted therapy and emotional health and well-being
- Employ some of these stress reduction techniques in your garden in order to relax
- Stop and smell the roses!
- Get the most out of your exercise by getting your heart pumping outdoors
- Ever wonder why you feel down on a rainy day?
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Dasgupta, P. (2004). Human well-being and the natural environment. USA: Oxford University Press.
Frumkin, H. (2001). Beyond toxicity: human health and the natural environment American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20(3), 234-240.
Hartig, T., & Evans, G. W. (1993). Psychological foundations of nature experience . In T. Garling, & R. G. Golledge (Eds.), Behavior and environment: Psychological and geographical approaches (pp. 427-457). Amsterdam: Elsevier/North Holland.
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Huh, S. Y., & Gordon, C. M. (2008). Vitamin D deficiency in children and adolescents: Epidemiology, impact, and treatment. reviews in endocrine and metabolic disorders. Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders, 9(2), 161-170.
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