- Feelings of connection to others and to nature are associated with better well-being.
- Nature time can also reduce self-focused thoughts and increase other-focused thoughts.
- This may explain why time in nature is also associated with more prosocial and pro-environmental behavior
Feeling lonely, disconnected from others and the world around you? You’re not alone. A recent meta-analysis of loneliness and social disconnection across 113 countries describes the problem of loneliness as a public health crisis, with the prevalence of loneliness ranging from 2 to 24 percent, depending on age and location (Surkalim et al., 2022). Feeling lonely and focusing too much on oneself rather than others is associated with worse well-being. In contrast, feeling connected to others and acting to help those around you has been demonstrated to improve mental health and happiness (Aknin et al., 2019).
This might sound like bad news if you’re feeling disconnected, but recent research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology points to a simple way to move your thoughts and feelings away from yourself and towards others and the world around you: Spend some time in a natural environment. This new work, led by Kathryn Schertz, shows that across two studies, people in more natural spaces engaged in less self-oriented thought and, instead, felt a greater sense of connection to and thought more about their physical and social environments.
Nature can provide a much-needed shift of focus.
In one study, 86 people walked for 60 minutes through both a nature conservatory in Chicago and a shopping mall on different days and were asked to respond to a series of surveys at different times throughout the walks. Some of the surveys asked about the content of participants’ current thoughts, such as “Were your thoughts mostly about yourself, mostly about others, about yourself and others, or not about people?” Other questions queried how connected they felt to other people or the environment around them.
The results of this first study found no differences in thoughts or connectedness at baseline (that is, before starting the walk). However, while walking in the conservatory vs. the mall, participants reported fewer self-focused thoughts, more thoughts about themselves with other people, more connectedness to the physical environment around them, and more connection to the social environment around them. This was the case at all of the time points throughout the nature walk, showing that walking in a natural environment led to consistently less thought about oneself and a greater connection to others and the world around them.
The results of this experiment provided compelling evidence for the association of time spent in nature with other-focused thought and connectedness. However, by focusing on two specific indoor environments in Chicago, it wasn’t completely clear whether these results would generalize to other types of environments. To get at this question of generalizability, Schertz analyzed data collected as part of a larger project on Chicago residents’ everyday experiences in their environments.
Even visiting a park can make us feel more connected to others.
This second study included 303 participants with greater diversity at a demographic (i.e., age, gender, ethnicity) and geographic level (from neighborhoods all around Chicago). In this study, participants filled out surveys on their phones while visiting hundreds of different parks in the city. They responded to questions about the park itself, such as how natural it was, and about how they were feeling at the moment. Specifically, they were asked, “How connected do you feel to other people around you?” and “How connected do you feel to the physical environment around you?”
Consistent with the results of the first study, the participants reported feeling more connected to others and to their physical surroundings while in parks that were rated as more natural. In addition to providing greater generalizability in terms of the locations studied, these “natural” spaces varied greatly in how natural they were, demonstrating that naturalness may be a crucial ingredient in facilitating connectedness to the world and people around oneself.
These results can shed light on another known benefit of nature exposure. That is, experiencing nature, particularly when it induces feelings of awe, has been shown to increase prosocial feelings and behaviors (such as donating money or feeling concerned for others) and engaging in conservation behaviors (Jacobs & McConnell, 2022; Joye & Bolderdijk, 2014). However, not everyone has access to spectacular, awe-inspiring natural spaces.
Schertz’s work suggests another way that nature might lead to helping others and engaging in environmental conservation efforts—through other-oriented thoughts and connectedness. Not only does this provide a potential scientific explanation for why everyday nature can make us want to help others (Passmore & Holder, 2017), but it also suggests we don’t need to see a breathtaking scenic vista to shift the focus from ourselves to others. In fact, being in a more natural city park appears to be enough!
The benefits of feeling connected to our physical and social environments
This is great for both the person in the park and those around them. Acting prosocially generates positive emotions and can reduce feelings of loneliness (Bains & Turnbull, 2019). While some types of self-oriented thought can be helpful for reflection and growth, an excessive focus on oneself and overly identifying with negative emotions can lead to unhealthy rumination (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005). Additionally, feeling connected to nature is associated with a variety of psychological benefits, including greater happiness and subjective well-being (Capaldi, Dopko, & Zelenski, 2014).
In other words, connecting to and thinking about others and the natural world around us has clear potential to make us and others happier. While more work is needed to specifically link “other-focused” thoughts and connections to prosociality, these findings do provide evidence for yet another benefit of nature exposure to well-being!
Schertz, K. E., Kotabe, H. P., Meidenbauer, K. L., Layden, E. A., Zhen, J., Bowman, J. E., Lakhtakia, T., Lyu, M., Paraschos, O. A., Janey, E. A., Samtani, A. L., Stier, A. J., Gehrke, K., Van Hedger, S. C., Vohs, K. D., & Berman, M. G. (2023). Nature’s path to thinking about others and the surrounding environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 89, 102046.
Surkalim, D. L., Luo, M., Eres, R., Gebel, K., van Buskirk, J., Bauman, A., & Ding, D. (2022). The prevalence of loneliness across 113 countries: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ , 376, e067068.
Aknin, L. B., Whillans, A. V., Norton, M. I., & Dunn, E. W. (2019). Happiness and prosocial behavior: An evaluation of the evidence. World Happiness Report 2019, 67-86.
Bains, K. K., & Turnbull, T. (2019). Improving Health Outcomes and Serving Wider Society: The Potential Role of Understanding and Cultivating Prosocial Purpose Within Health Psychology Research and Practice to Address Climate Change and Social Isolation and Loneliness. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1787.
Joye, Y., & Bolderdijk, J. W. (2014). An exploratory study into the effects of extraordinary nature on emotions, mood, and prosociality. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1577.
Kross, E., Ayduk, O., & Mischel, W. (2005). When asking “why” does not hurt. Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological Science, 16(9), 709–715.
Jacobs, T. P., & McConnell, A. R. (2022). Self-transcendent emotion dispositions: Greater connections with nature and more sustainable behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 81, 101797.
Capaldi, C. A., Dopko, R. L., & Zelenski, J. M. (2014). The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 976
Passmore, H.-A., & Holder, M. D. (2017). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12(6), 537–546.