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Environment

All human thinking and behavior unfolds within one of countless physical environments with distinct characteristics. From noisy, crowded offices to quiet, open fields, from one’s private bedroom to the whole of the natural world, the environment can be dissected at multiple levels, each of which has important connections to psychology.

Among the consequential links between the environment and the mind are those between the qualities of certain environments (most notably natural settings) and well-being, as well as the psychological relationship between individuals and their threatened natural environments.

What Is Environmental Psychology?

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Environmental psychology is a branch of psychology that explores the relationship between humans and the external world. The influence of natural and human-built surroundings on how people feel, think, and behave is a major focus of research in the field.

What is the “environment” in environmental psychology?

Environmental psychology focuses on a variety of physical spaces inhabited by people, including both human-built and natural ones. These can include relatively small-scale environments, such as a classroom, a home, or a public park, as well as larger-scale spaces such as schools, hospitals, or neighborhoods. (In other areas of psychology, the term “environment” is often used in a different way, to broadly refer to non-genetic factors that lead to individual differences.)

What are some key topics in environmental psychology?

Important subjects in environmental psychology include the negative or positive effects of spaces on people who inhabit them: for example, the impact of environmental stressors like noise or crowding; the restorative effect of natural environments; and the features associated with increased well-being, performance, or other measures in places like offices, homes, schools, and neighborhoods. Environmental psychologists also study personal space, privacy, and the sense of ownership of spaces, how people can better navigate environments, why certain environments are preferred to others, and what motivates concern for the environment and environmentally friendly behaviors.

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The Benefits of Nature

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Even in an increasingly urbanized world, the natural environment is deeply important to the human species. In addition to providing space to explore, play, and relax with minimal interference, nature appears to have positive effects on mental health. Whether people get their dose of the outdoors on a trek through the wilderness or a jog through the city park, research suggests, we should not overlook its potential as a psychological salve.

What are some psychological benefits of spending time in nature?

Time spent in natural environments and proximity to green space (such as an urban park) have been associated with measures of well-being—including lower anxiety and depression symptoms—in a number of studies. Researchers have found evidence that time in natural environments can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Some informally refer to “nature therapy” or “vitamin N” to highlight nature’s potential benefits.

How much time outdoors do you need to feel better?

People may not need not go on extended hikes to see psychological gains from time in nature. Researchers found that spending just a couple of hours per week in green spaces was associated with higher self-ratings of health and well-being. Time in nature can encourage exercise, which itself has benefits for well-being, but the finding held even for those who reported little or no exercise.

Psychology and Climate Change

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As global temperatures and sea levels rise, changes in the environment are poised to affect human well-being in complex ways. Scientists have begun to explore the potential for negative impacts on mental health over time. Given the role of human-caused carbon emissions in the global climate crisis—and a lack of coordinated action to address it—there are a variety of ways in which ideas from psychology could be helpful in mitigating and coping with the effects of climate change.

Can psychology help reduce the impact of climate change?

Psychology highlights cognitive tendencies that may be relevant for promoting action on climate change, or that will need to be taken into consideration. For example, concrete experiences are often more psychologically impactful than abstract statistics and trends, so conveying such experiences as they relate to the effects of climate change may have a stronger influence on support for new policies. Another such tendency is discounting the costs and benefits of future events relative to more immediate ones—something that might be addressed by drawing attention to climate change impacts that are already evident.

How might climate change affect mental health?

While it is difficult to predict exactly how any specific psychological effects of climate change will play out, research suggests that rises in average temperatures are associated with increases in self-reported mental health problems. Other effects of climate change—such as more frequent and severe storms and hurricanes—could cause large-scale spikes in distress. Gradual changes such as increased dislocation and resource scarcity may also pose threats to mental health.

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