Arguments for the protection of nature are often couched in very practical language. We need to have clean air and water. We need to protect biodiversity in order to maintain a genetic pool that may safeguard our crops and provide new sources of medicine. We need to mitigate climate change in order to protect the people who will be affected by rising seas and altered weather patterns.
Psychologists have been criticized in recent years for over-emphasizing the negative: fighting mental illness, reducing prejudice and aggression. In response, psychological research has begun to look at the sources of virtue and of resilience. Conservation psychology examines the ways in which nature promotes individual and social well-being.
Does nature make us happy? Not always. Hurricanes, getting caught in the rain and finding bugs are not positively valued by most people. But when you ask people to describe their favorite place, natural environments are overwhelmingly selected. Positive emotions are common. Psychologists Melinda Merrick and Joanne Vining have even studied “environmental ephiphanies” – feelings of deep meaning and transcendence that are associated with experiences in nature.
Other research has shown that the benefits of nature include reduced stress, increased creativity, and a feeling of cognitive restoration.(Staats has a good recent review.) No wonder these are some of our favorite places.
Action on behalf of the environment, too, can lead to a sense of purpose, connection to like-minded others, and self-efficacy – especially in contrast to the effects of mindless consumerism, as work by Tim Kasser and others has explored.
Some people talk as if environmentalism is “good for you” and therefore unpleasant. In fact it can be a source of personal and social satisfaction. So go ahead – indulge.
Staats, H. (2012). Restorative environments.
Vining, J., & Merrick, M. (2012). Environmental epiphanies.
Both in S. Clayton (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology. New York: Oxford Press.