Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Nature and psychological well-being

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Nature and psychological well-being:
How to use nature to make you happy and improve your life


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Happy in nature

Underpinning most of what is discussed in this chapter is the evolutionary explanations of emotions, the Biophilia Hypothesis and the way nature plays an important role in our psychological well-being.

The focus of this chapter is to learn lessons from the research into environmental aesthetics, the restorative environment, attention restoration theory and nature deficit disorder to help us improve our lives. Seasonal affective disorder and green exercise are discussed because of their relevance to mental illness and miscellaneous tips for improving our psychological well-being are given at the end.

Keep an eye out for the light green boxes which show research based on the theories covered. Look for the heading "use nature to improve your life" for tips based on both the theories and the research.

Evolution and emotions

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People are motivated to behave in ways that have made them happy in the past and avoid behaviours which have led to them being sad (Nesse, 1989). Nesse (1989) suggests that from an evolutionary point of view, it is most useful for a person to conserve energy when the outcome is unlikely to be a good one but to use all energy stores when the effort will result in good consequences.

“Emotions are specialized modes of operation shaped by natural selection to adjust the physiological, psychological, and behavioural parameters of the organism in ways that increase its capacity and tendency to respond adaptively to the threats and opportunities characteristic of specific kinds of situations.” Nesse (1989, p. 268)

Biophilia hypothesis

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Please do this before reading on about the Biophilia Hypothesis Which picture from each pair do you prefer?

1 1st Pair

2 2nd Pair

3 3rd Pair

This quiz examines preferences and introduces the topic. There are no right or wrong answers.

You may be asking, what has evolution and emotion have to do with nature? We are beings with a fundamental need and desire to be affiliated with nature, according to the Biophilia Hypothesis (Khan, 1997; Wilson, 1984). This desire stems from our ancient history where we depended on the land and lived at the mercy of Mother Nature for almost 2 million years on the East African savannahs (Kahn, 1997). Observing the landscape to find bodies of water and food sources while keeping an eye out for predators was a part of daily life and is still ingrained in our subconscious minds.

Psychological research has found that people have a preference for natural environments and built environments with natural features over built environments without natural features (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This will be discussed further in environmental aesthetics and attention restoration theory, as they are both related to our general preference for natural environments and the benefits of nature to our well-being.

The biophilia hypothesis suggests that the long history between humans and nature shaped our cognitions and emotions in a way that the modern human is now wired for an appreciation and evaluation of natural environments (Gullone, 2000). Those humans who had a genotype best for making behavioural responses most likely to enhance survival and reproduction were kept in the population through natural selection (Gullone, 2000). Behaviours in response to natural stimulation are either approach or avoidance behaviours. These adaptive behaviours are called biophilia and biophobia. Biophilia is the approach behaviour towards natural environments judge as fit for survival. Biophobia is the aversion and avoidance of potential dangers such as spiders, snakes and bears (Gullone, 2000). These behaviours are inherited from one generation to another and even when humans stopped living in a natural environment these rules, behaviours and stimuli responses did not disappear.

Use nature to improve your life

There is quite obviously a gap between today’s 21st century living habitats and that of our ancient ancestors. It has been suggested that reducing this gap and using the natural environmental is a good way to improve our psychological well-being and the quality of life (Buss, 2000). Being in touch with nature is one way to make you happy. It has been recommended that the differences between modern and ancestral living conditions be minimised and a Paleolithic lifestyle to be taken up to increase psychological well-being (Buss, 2000). It is also recommended to develop deeper friendships rather than fair weather friends which reflects the society of our ancestors (Buss, 2000). These are some examples of how to keep ourselves close to our evolutionary roots and minimise the gap between now and then.

Environmental aesthetics

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Aesthetically Pleasing

Environmental preference studies aim to determine the aesthetic value of a given stimuli using questionnaires, images and physical environments (Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000). There are various questionnaires that have been employed to measure the various components of environmental aesthetics. Descriptive scales have been used for describing the physical attributes in an environment or image. Affective scales measure moods and reactions to the stimuli. Appraisal scales indicate the aesthetic value of the settings (Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000). Many studies have concluded that people prefer park-like settings with short grass, mature trees and water (Balling & Falk, 1982). This indicates that we are inherently predisposed to judge savannah like environments as more aesthetically pleasing than others. Such results support the biophilia hypothesis.

The work of Daniel E. Berlyne explores the scientific study of aesthetic behaviour with a specific focus on the “appreciator” of the creation being viewed. His theory is developed in the evolutionist framework. He suggests that aesthetics play an important function in the survival of the human species. It is beneficial for humans to have an ability to detect aesthetically pleasing environments than to lack the ability. Natural selection would theoretically reduce the number of people in the population who did not possess these necessary abilities.

The work of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan builds on that of Berlyne. Kaplan and Kaplan were concerned with the basic cognitive needs that people have with regard to their physical environments (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). These needs include the need to make sense of the environment and its features while extracting useful information. The second is the need to be involved in the environment (Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000). Environments that meet these needs generate responses of attraction and aesthetic preference in all individuals studied (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). An evolutionist would say that avoiding environments that don't meet needs while approaching those which do, is a desirable and adaptive ability (Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000).

Aesthetics, Pleasure and Arousal: Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000

High Pleasure Low Pleasure
High Arousal Exciting Distress
Low Arousal Tranquillity Boring

Two independent and bipolar dimensions, pleasure and arousal, are used to describe the moods and affective responses that a person feels when observing an environment (Galindo & Rodriguez, 2000). The table demonstrates the four possible outcomes of when the two dimensions are low or high.

The Galindo and Rodriguez (2000) study investigated the relationship between aesthetic judgements and affective responses/psychological well-being. Aesthetic appraisal responses were closely associated with arousal and pleasure, indicating that there is a relationship between environmental aesthetics and mood.

Use nature to improve your life

This knowledge of human’s preferences for nature over human-made environments has many applications. For example, in a hospital ward there was a high sick-leave rate in staff before the installation of full spectrum daylight bulbs and green plants in 80m2 on the premises. After the environmental aesthetic changes were made, there was a 32% reduction in tiredness, 25% drop in the sick-leave rate, 45% less headaches and 31% reduction in sore throats (Fjeld, 1998a, b). Are you a manager or boss in a company where you would like to reduce the sick-leave rate? How about investing in some green plants and full-spectrum daylight bulbs for the workplace and watch the way your employees react?

Restorative environment & Attention Restoration Theory

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Mental fatigue is the feeling of being worn out after working too hard for too long and feeling the need for a well-earned break. Everybody has experienced mental fatigue at some point, but it is interesting to note that you can feel mentally fatigued from working hard on projects you enjoy (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Mental fatigue is often accompanied with the inability to focus and keep our attention on the project we are working on, instead distraction takes place and our minds wander.

William James (1892) suggested that there are two types of attention; directed and involuntary. Involuntary attention is the type that doesn’t require any effort and is often used when there is something interesting to look at (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Directed attention on the other hand is that which requires effort and drains our minds, such as a work project or an essay (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Sleep can provide relief from this mental fatigue but the restorative experience is often more convenient.

The restoration experience involves restoring our stores of directed attention while increasing our mental well-being by using involuntary attention. We can then return refreshed to do those things that need to be done. Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989) proposes that a restorative experience involves four components. These are being away, the extent to which it feels like being in another ‘world’, fascination, and compatibility.

Restorative Experience

Use nature to improve your life

Being away

Being away involves stopping mental effort and directed attention, escaping from distractions and from the work that is normally done. One does not need to be a long way from the workplace to escape from these things. An environment need only be distinctive and separate from the workplace. Perhaps you could try escaping to the nearby park during the lunch break to your eat lunch and while you are there, watch the birds and animals in the park?

Extent of other worldliness

The extent to which the environment is different to your usual place is important because without the distinctiveness it will not be a restorative experience. A place that can be described as a ‘whole other world’ is an important property of the environment to which you escape to. A garden where there is more to explore and see in the garden than what one sees at first sight is another important part of extent. Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) suggest that Japanese gardens are the best for this as the miniature effect creates a sense of distinctiveness and uniqueness. If you are in the process of landscaping, consider a garden that encourages exploration using hidden features and overgrown pathways.


Fascination is the next key to the restorative experience to help you regain mental well-being. Fascination involves involuntary attention and therefore keeps the person from getting bored but also there is no effort needed for attention to take place. Wild animals, sunsets, waterfalls, caves, fires, stars, clouds can all grab our involuntary and effortless attention if we let them and are called soft fascinations. They should not hold our attention for too long (otherwise they become too distracting to pull ourselves out) and they should be aesthetically pleasing. Go and watch the clouds go by on a day when you’ve had enough of work. At night watch the stars in your backyard. These forms of soft fascinations will allow your directed attention to have a break and its stores to refill while your involuntary attention takes over for a while.


Compatibility and relatedness come back to the evolutionary perspective and the biophilia hypothesis. That is, that on an innate and inherited level we as humans prefer natural environments to human-made environments and we feel a sense of awe and wonder when in its presence. Relatedness and compatibility can occur in these natural environments. Psychological well-being occurs when we are in a compatible environment. Being in an incompatible environment requires a lot of effort and attention. Next time you are finding it hard to read a difficult text due to distractions at work, head to a park bench and immerse yourself in a compatible restorative environment.

Restorative environments through a hospital window (Ulrich, 1984)

The recovery records of 46 cholecystectomy (gall bladder surgery) patients from a Pennsylvania hospital were examined. The aim was to explore the difference in recovery rates of those with a window facing a brick wall and those who had a view of foliage. The patients were grouped into 23 pairs based on sex, age, smoking habits, and weight and floor level. Results for the months between 1st of May and October 20th for the years 1972 to 1981 were used, because as during these months the trees had foliage. The length of hospitalisation for those with a tree-view was 7.96 days while those with a view of a brick wall stayed in for 8.70 days. Nurses’ notes on the wall-view patients indicated that they were in a more negative mood than those in the tree-view room, although it was not statistically significant. Those in the tree-view room took fewer moderate to strong pain killers than the wall-view patients in the 2-5 days after surgery. Ulrich noted that the brick wall view was quite hideous and boring. He suggests that a view of another built environment, such as a busy street, may produce different results because the patient is more stimulated. The results of the 1984 study suggest that natural environments do indeed provide a restorative environment which improves both physical and mental well-being.

Nature Deficit Disorder

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Children with Nature

Author of “Last Child In the Woods”, Richard Louv has suggested that the children of today’s society are missing out on vital interaction with nature. Nature Deficit Disorder, as Louv puts it, is the cause of the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression. Nature Deficit Disorder is not recognised as an official disorder, however many of the points Louv raises relate to the current chapter. The book is recommended for parents who are worried about the health of their children and their lack of direct exposure to nature.

The main features of Louv’s Nature Deficit Disorder theory are based around the relationship between children and nature. He suggests that there is a new relationship between child and nature in which children do not interact with the natural world as much as they should. Secondly, he suggests that we all need direct exposure to nature in our lives and without it mental fatigue, irritability and agitation creep in. Thirdly, Louv suggests that busy schedules and fear keep our children from enjoying nature. Thankfully his book “Last Child In the Woods” also provides ways to reunite children and nature (see tips for more).

Please keep in mind that this disorder is currently not in the DSM and therefore not accepted by general psychiatry. Further research and theory development is needed before acceptance as a mental disorder.

Vegetation and children: Wells and Evans (2003)

Wells and Evans collected data from 337 rural children from five small towns in upstate New York. They were in grades 3 to 5 with an average age just over nine years. Parents reported the psychological distress shown by their children on the Rutter Child Behaviour Questionnaire. Children provided their own ratings of global self-worth on the Harter Competency Scale. The authors explored the impact of nearby nature on children subject to a stressful life event. To assess the frequency of stressful life events, the Lewis Stressful Life Events Scale was used.

As expected, exposure to stressful life events correlated with psychological distress. Secondly, nearby nature was found to be a moderator between stressful life events and psychological distress. There was a large difference between the psychological distress of children who had low exposure to nature and those who had high exposure to nature. Those with high exposure to nature had less distress than those with low exposure to nature even though they had the same levels of stressful life events. The effect was particularly large when there were high levels of stressful life events.

Use nature to improve your life

Children who experience high levels of stressful life events would benefit from living nearby nature. If this is not an option, consider investing in a veggie patch or building a cubby house in your backyard. Whether you believe your child is distressed or not, encourage your children to be active in the outdoors. If you have a busy schedule, consider allocating time to throwing a ball around outside with your child. It will be good for you as well as your child!

Seasonal Affective Disorder

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A winter without Sun

Biological changes occur on a continuum throughout the year and while many people may feel lethargic and irritable in the colder and darker months of the year (Eagles, 2003), on the extreme end of this continuum is Seasonal Affective Disorder which impairs the functioning of those who suffer with it.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a disorder in the DSM-IV that presents as major depression with a seasonal pattern (Targum & Rosenthal, 2008). People with SAD slow down and lose energy in the darker months of the year and often have trouble waking in the morning. There can also be problems with concentration and weight gain which can be caused from excessive eating of sweets and other starchy foods (Targum & Rosenthal, 2008).

SAD is most common in the winter months where there is relatively little sun (Rosenthal, 2009). Severe SAD can cause major depressive symptoms on cloudy days (Targum & Rosenthal, 2008). Research has suggested that patients with SAD can have more severe symptoms than clients with non-seasonal major depression who have attempted suicide (Pendse, Engstroem & Traeskman-Bendz, 2004). Treatment is necessary for those who have SAD.

Melatonin, Bright Light Therapy and Dawn Simulation: Avery et al, 2001; Terman et al, 2001.

Melatonin is a natural hormone which is used by all mammals to indicate that darkness is approaching and that it is time for rest. Research has suggested that the longer hours of darkness cause an imbalance to the melatonin rhythm and this is why people become more lethargic in the darker months (Brown, Pandi-Perumal, Trakht & Cardinali, 2010).

Bright light therapy and dawn simulation both attempt to fix the melatonin imbalance and rhythm and restore proper sleep and mood ((Avery, Eder, Bolte, Hellekson, Dunner, Vitiell & Prinz, 2001; Terman, Terman & Cooper, 2001). To help reset the melatonin rhythm, bright light treatment is best administered in the morning eight and a half hours after melatonin onset(Terman et al., 2001). Bright light therapy has been criticised for the inconvenience caused to the patient.

Dawn simulation has been suggested as a better for the treatment of SAD (Avery et al, 2001). Dawn simulation is the use of dim lights slowly increasing in intensity until the patient wakes up and simulates the rising of the sun in the morning (Avery et al., 2001). Compliance of the patient is greater with dawn simulation than bright light therapy because it saves time and is very convenient (Avery et al., 2001).

Use nature to improve your life

Having knowledge of SAD can help you identify if this applies to you and what natural light treatments are available. Read "Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder" by Norman Rosenthal for more information. You should consult your doctor or psychologist for further information and diagnosis of SAD.

Green exercise

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Table 1. Components of Green Exercise

Physical activity and exposure to nature both have positive effects on psychological well-being and physical health (Pretty, Peacock, Sellens & Griffin, 2005). Table 1 shows the components that define green exercise. Combining physical exercise and exposure to nature it termed green exercise and may promote even better physical and mental health than either one alone. Green_exercise incorporates environmental aesthetics and restorative environments. Engagement with nature can be seen on three levels (Mackay & Neill, 2010): viewing nature, being in the presence of nature, and being involved in nature. Green exercise is about being involved in nature. Gardening, jogging outdoors, watersports and mountain biking can be considered as green exercise.

Exercise and projected scenes: Pretty et al. 2005

Condition Example
Control No Image
Rural Pleasant Trees, fields etc
Urban Pleasant Cityscape with natural features ie city parks
Rural Unpleasant Broken down cars in the bush etc
Urban Unpleasant Broken windows, wire fencing etc

There were five conditions with 20 participants. In four of the conditions 30 scenes were projected onto a wall whilst the participants exercised on a treadmill. Blood pressure, self-esteem and mood were measured before and after the exercise.

Results indicated that in the control group exercise reduced blood pressure and improved self-esteem and mood. When exercise was paired with pleasant scenes the mood and self-esteem of participants was higher than in other conditions. Unpleasant scenes when paired with exercise reduced the effect of exercise on self-esteem and self-esteem was lower in these conditions.

Use nature to improve your life

Green exercise

Next time you hop on your treadmill, consider facing it towards a window where you can see outside. Or go one step further and go for a jog outside, go hiking or go canoeing on the local lake. Being motivated to exercise can be hard, so check out the Exercise Motivation chapter for some tips.

Miscellaneous tips on how to use nature to improve your life

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  • Give flowers to a woman. When you do she will produce a Duchenne smile and will be in a more positive mood for 3 days. (Haviland-Jones, Rosario, Wilson & McGuire, 2005).
  • Make your backyard into a habitat for native flora and fauna. Build a bird bath and plant natives (requires less watering than non-natives and they look great).
  • Go hiking and camping. Light a fire and star gaze at night (please check local fire bans beforehand).
  • Be in nature and be aware of your senses. Listen, smell, touch and watch (Louv, 2008). Try the Sensual Awareness Inventory for this activity.
  • Plant a veggie garden. Good for saving money on produce. Great for the kids to see where their food comes from and be involved in the process (Louv, 2008).


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Lessons about nature and psychological well-being can be learnt from the research and theories of environmental and evolutionary schools of psychology. This chapter was written to help you realise that nature plays a vital role in our psychological well-being. You now know that:

  • You can use restorative environments to reduce mental fatigue. (Attention Restoration Theory)
  • Being in touch with nature and our ancestral roots can improve your life. (Environmental Aesthetics & Biophilia Hypothesis)
  • Children need nature for their mental health. (Nature Deficit Disorder)
  • Emotions can be dramatically affected by the change of seasons. (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
  • Combining exercise with nature is best. (Green exercise)

The take away message from the chapter is this: go outdoors and use nature to improve your life.

See also

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Avery, D.H., Eder, D.N., Bolte, M.A., Hellekson, C.J, Dunner,D.L., Vitiello, M.V., & Prinz, P.N. (2001). Dawn simulation and bright light in the treatment of sad: A controlled study. Society of Biological Psychiatry, 50, 205-216.

Balling, J.D. & Falk, J.H. (1982). Development of visual preference for natural environments. Environment and Behaviour, 14(1), 5-28.

Brown, G.M., Pandi-Perumal, S.R., Trakht & Cardinali,. (2010). The role of melatonin in seasonal affective disorder. In T. Partonen, & S.R Pandi-Perumal (Eds.), Seasonal Affective Disorder: Practice and research (pp. 149-162). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Buss, D.M. (2000). The evolution of happiness. American Psychologist, 55(1), 15-23.

Eagles, J.M. (2003). Seasonal affective disorder. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 182, 174-176.

Fjeld, T. (1998a). Plants in interior surroundings—a source to health. gartneryrket 13(15).

Fjeld, T. (1998b). Plants; Light; Interior and health. research report. the norwegian radium hospital Olso

Galindo, P. & Rodriguez, J.A. (2000). Environmental aesthetics and psychological well-being: Relationships between preferences judgements for urban landscapes and other relevant affective responses. Psychology in Spain, 4 (1), 13-27.

Gullone, E. (2000). The biophilia hypothesis and life in the 21st century: Increasing mental health or increasing pathology?. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1, 293-321.

Haviland-Jones, J., Rosario, H.H., Wilson, P., & McGuire, T.R. (2005). An environmental approach ot positive emotion: Flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 104-132.

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khan, P.H. (1997). Developmental psychology and the biophilia hypothesis: Children’s affiliation with nature. Developmental Review, 17, 1-61.

Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonoquin Books.

Mackay, G.J. & Neill, J.T. (2010). The effect of green exercise on state anxiety and the role of exercise duration, intensity and greenness: a quasi-experimental study. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 238-245.

Nesse, R.M. (1989). Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human Nature, 1 (3). 261-289.

Pendse, B.P., Engstroem, G., & Traeskman-Bendz, L. (2004) Psychopathology of seasonal affective disorder patients in comparison with major depression patients who have attempted suicide. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 65, 322–327.

Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., & Griffin, M. (2005). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15 (5). 319-337.

Rosenthal, N. (2009). Issues for DSM-V: Seasonal affective disorder and seasonality. American Journal of Psychiatry, 166 (8), 52-53.

Targum, S.D. & Rosenthal, N. (2008). Research to practice; Seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry, May,31-33.

Terman, J., Terman, M., Lo, E., & Cooper, T. (2001). Circadian time of morning light administration and therapeutic response in winter depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58, 69-75.

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224. 420-421.

Wells, N.M. & Evans, G.W. (2003). Nearby nature: A buffer of life stress among rural children. Environment and Behaviour, 35(3), 311-330.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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