Instead of immediately going to check my email at 7 a.m. this morning, I decided to go for a short hike in the nearby Prescott Wilderness area. As I began strolling through a creek bed surrounded by ponderosa pines, Arizona scrub oaks, juniper and fir trees, with occasional bursts of color from Indian paintbrush flowers, I had the same thought I have every time I get out into nature – “I’d forgotten how beautiful it is out here. Why don’t I do this more often?” In fact, my plan for a short stroll got extended, as I continued up a lovely manzanita-covered hillside with views of the surrounding Prescott hills and the distinctive rock formation called Thumb Butte.
And then, I strolled over a small mountain pass to view a stunning vista of Granite Peak through a stand of pine trees. At that very moment, three gorgeous birds flew into view: a Mexican scrub jay, with the color of his brilliant blue feathers amplified by a ray of sunshine, a tiny little crested juniper titmouse, and a red-capped downy woodpecker. All my day-to-day worries had faded to insignificance, and I thought: “It’s great to be alive!”
A few hours later, back in reality, or at least the modern version of reality, I came across an email listing the latest papers in the journal Psychological Science. One of the articles, by Elizabeth Nisbet and John Zelenski, shed some experimental light on my morning’s experience, and contained a wonderful message for all of us. The paper is titled “Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability.” The researchers found that people are not very good at predicting the amount of pleasure they’ll experience from getting out in nature.
The authors reference sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s idea that humans are “biophilic” – drawn to settings that are similar to those our ancestors thrived in. On that idea, we are designed, like birds and frogs, to feel at home in green riparian areas, surrounded by living green plants rather than the concrete buildings that fill our modern lives. They point out that previous research has uncovered a number of psychological benefits of spending time in nature.
Yet, we are out of touch with the pleasure we’ll get from such experiences. In one of their experiments, they had a group of students at Carleton University predict the pleasure they’d get from walking to their destination along a picturesque local biking and walking path running along a green corridor in Ottawa. Another group actually took the same walk, and rated how pleasurable it was. Other students walked to the same destination through tunnels (that’s how people get between buildings on Canadian campuses in the winter). What they found was that, even though the prediction group was familiar with the walking path, their guesses about how good it would feel were significantly below the actual ratings of the students who took the walk.
Besides offering a prescription for how you could improve your own mood by getting away from your computer screen and outside for a walk, there’s a more important practical side to this research. They review other studies that find that people not feel happier when they spend time out in the natural environment, they are also more likely to do their part to save the world, by making greener choices – to act to promote a sustainable future. As the authors note: “these studies suggest a happy path to sustainability. Rather than (or in addition to) motivating people to behave in ways that are ecologically sustainable though obligation, fear, guilt, or economic incentives, policymakers might encourage contact with nature.”
This phenomenon works acrosses age boundaries as well. Whenever I try to tear my 7 year old son Liam away from his Legos to go for a hike, he protests: “Why can’t I just use the time to play Angry Birds?” But he reliably has a wonderful time when he gets out on a trail, running happily down ahead of us, discovering various branches to drag along behind him, or pebbles to throw into the stream. The last time he went with us to Granite Park Wilderness, he practically stated Nisbet and Zelenski’s thesis, wondering aloud why he always complains about going on a hike, and observing: “This is great fun.” So by all means, read Nisbet and Zelenski’s paper, and assign it to your students, but first go take a hike.
Doug Kenrick is the author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our understanding of human nature. As suggested here, he has now reached an age where there's more effort devoted to the meaning of life part, and less to the sex and murder part.
Nisbet, E.K., & Zelenski, J.M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychological Science. Early online release: DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418527.