I love spending time outside. From wild places like the backcountry of the Sierra Nevada mountains, to the mundane nature in my back yard, I find comfort in my natural experiences. These places are restful. Peaceful. They restore my batteries, and help me to focus. And I am not alone in these experiences. People around the world seek out natural experiences. Even when confined to built spaces, we add pets, plants, pictures, and momentos from nature. It is part of who we are, and these experiences in nature help us reflect on what is important in life.
The benefits of spending time in nature have been well-documented. Psychological research has shown that natural experiences help to reduce stress, improve mood, and promote an overall increase in physical and psychological well-being. There is even evidence that hospital patients with a view of nature recover faster than do hospital patients without such a view. This line of research provides clear evidence that people are drawn to nature with good reason. It has restorative properties.
But a recent article by researchers at the University of Rochester shows that experiences with nature can affect more than our mood. In a series of studies, Netta Weinstein, Andrew Przybylski, and Richard Ryan, University of Rochester, show that exposure to nature can affect our priorities and alter what we think is important in life. In short, we become less self-focused and more other-focused. Our value priorities shift from personal gain, to a broader focus on community and connection with others.
To demonstrate this effect, they ran a series of studies. In their first study, the researchers randomly assigned individuals to view a slide show that either depicted scenes of human-made or natural environments. The slides were matched across a variety of characteristics, to eliminate the possibility that the results were due to things like color, complexity, or brightness of the images. The participants were instructed to try to immerse themselves in the images—to notice the colors and textures and imagine the sounds and smells. After watching the slide show (which took about 8 minutes), the participants completed a series of questions about their life aspirations.
Of particular interest were responses to extrinsic life aspirations , like being financially successful or admired by many people; as contrasted with intrinsic life aspirations , like deep and enduring relationships, or working toward the betterment of society. The results showed that people who watched the nature images scored significantly lower on extrinsic life aspirations, and significantly higher on intrinsic life aspirations. The effect was particularly strong for participants who reported being “immersed” in the images. This basic effect was further explored in three subsequent studies. The later studies showed the same effect for true nature experiences: being in a small room with plants, for example.
These results are part of a growing body of evidence showing the powerful effect of natural experiences. And, for people like me who enjoy spending time in nature, the results are encouraging. However, when viewed within a larger societal context, the results also provide an intriguing perspective on some noted shifts in the values and priorities or Americans over the past 40 years.
People living in the United States are spending much less time outdoors today than ever before. Data from a variety of sources show that on average, Americans are spending less time outdoors today than they did 30 or even 20 years ago. Children tend to spend more time outside than do adults, but that number too is declining. With the growth of Internet, social networking, on-demand programming, and computer games, there is more to keep us inside than there is to draw us out into the natural environment (or at least, it feels that way).
These trends have not gone unnoticed, of course, and there is a growing concern about the “sedentary lifestyle,” and our loss of connectedness with nature. But the results from Weinstein et al. suggest something else—that this reduction in our exposure to the natural world could drive large-scale shifts in societal values. As their results show, experiences with strictly built environments lead to life aspirations that are more self-focused. These results may help explain the increase in aspirations for fame, wealth, power, achievement, and other self-enhancing values in Western society and predict that this trend is likely to continue.
So the next time you feel like you have lost sight of what is important, take a walk outside. Immerse yourself in the experience. Clear your head by listening to the sounds of the birds, the smell of the sage, and the touch of the breeze. These are the experiences that open our mind and help us to realize that we are part of a larger community.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.