Given the environmental chaos that is seemingly everywhere now – notably this recent series of earthquakes, record-breaking hurricanes, and fires – it seems more important than ever to discuss the hidden and long term impacts of natural disasters on human happiness. In addition to reeking immediate havoc on the lives of everyone touched by these natural disasters, these disasters may also negatively impact human happiness in less-than-obvious ways.
Until recently, nature and the environment have been mostly ignored in the conversation about happiness. We are often more interested in discussing the latest brain wave detecting headband or mindfulness app than we are in discussing the ways that the planet provides – and always has provided – happiness. But the research shows that connecting to the planet – through activities like forest bathing, awe inducing adventures, and escaping the city to return to nature – helps us to maintain our happiness and decrease stress.
By looking at natural disasters with an eye on the science-of-happiness, we see 3 additional hidden ways natural disasters harm human happiness. So as smoke burns my throat from the North Bay fires just a few miles away from where I sit, the time has come to reflect on these hidden impacts.
Forest bathing – or taking in the forest atmosphere – has been shown to lower cortisol (the stress hormone), reduce blood pressure, and increase parasympathetic activity (the bodies calming response). And all sorts of natural disasters destroy our forests. Perhaps most recent are the toppled forests and bare tree trunks left by hurricanes Irma and Maria. These forests, and the happiness they help produce, are forever lost.
Nature is often used as an escape from the city – a place to recharge and reconnect with what really matters. Not more than a year ago, I ventured into Mayacamas Ranch, north of San Francisco, for a YOL retreat that both calmed and re-energized me. This weekend, fire swept through the valley, completely devastating the ranch and the landscape around it. As you can see from the photo here, these chairs at Mayacamas Ranch, overlooking the California hills, are gone forever. And the hills – at least as they were in this photo – are gone too. The places to go to escape into nature are decreasing by the day.
Recent research shows that generating awe – by getting out in nature, viewing expansive landscapes, and looking up at towering trees – promotes well-being. The still burning North Bay fires have eaten up entire swaths of trees and grass lands, lands that generate awe. Previously serene beaches are now littered with hurricane debris. And once majestic Mexico City buildings are now piles of rubble. Will awe in the future be limited to looking over destroyed landscapes? I certainly hope not.
The short-term impacts of natural disasters are clear. They are devastating for the people affected by them. But the long-term impacts of natural disasters on human happiness are real too.
Park, B. J., et al. (2010). "The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan." Environmental health and preventive medicine 15(1): 18.
Piff, P. K., et al. (2015). "Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 108(6): 883.