In The Neighborhood

How the built environment influences our mental health

A Generous Nature

Beautiful nature improves social relations

As 2013 draws to an end and I begin my Christmas holidays, my thoughts are turning to the things I’d like to achieve during my time away from work.  First and foremost in my mind is rest and relaxation.  For me, this means catching up with family and friends and spending time in my garden. 

Having always wanted a beautiful garden, I’m determined to create one in 2014.   While I’m well aware of the mentally restorative potential of nature, recent research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology has provided me with another incentive to pull out my gardening gloves.

Jia Wei Zhang and colleagues from both the University of California and the University of Southern California conducted four different studies to determine whether perceptions of beauty in nature lead to increased prosocial tendencies, such as agreeableness, perspective taking, empathy, generosity, trust, and increased helping behavior.  The results showed that nature may promote these tendencies when it is perceived to be beautiful, particularly in those people who are more sensitive to nature’s beauty.

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Although the researchers acknowledged that perceptions of beauty may be influenced by objective characteristics (e.g., symmetry and contrast), this study emphasized the subjective nature of beauty judgments and the role of individual factors, such as one’s attachment to a specific setting, or an individual tendency to appreciate beauty.

The findings suggest that the relationship between beautiful nature and enhanced prosociality may be due to nature’s potential to elicit positive emotions, which in turn, lead to more agreeable, empathetic and generous behavior. 

Of course, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too are interpretations of the ideal holiday.  It seems that my two priorities these holidays – beautifying my garden and catching up with loved ones – may complement one another, with time spent in the garden potentially enhancing my interactions with family and friends.   Here’s hoping we all find the recipe for a happy holiday this festive season.

 

References

Zhang JW, Piff PK, Iyer R, Koleva S, Keltner D.  An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality.  Journal of Environmental Psychology.  2014; 37:61-72 [Available online 1 December 2013].

 

Jacinta Francis, Ph.D., is a Research Associate with the Centre for the Built Environment and Health at The University of Western Australia.

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