This past week, I finished teaching my first Environmental Psychology class. At the end of the course, I asked the students to share the biggest thing they took away from the course.
A common response was the realization of just how much the environment matters, and how little most of us think about changing our environments to promote our well-being. Being a researcher in this field, this is something I see a lot.
As 2023 winds down, and we all come to reflect on our New Year's resolutions for 2024, it might be worth taking some time to carefully evaluate our surroundings and consider how changing our environments might be a more worthwhile goal than we think.
In my class, we discussed research on the myriad benefits of unthreatening natural environments. (Unthreatening is notable here as, to quote a common question raised in seminars and talks I've given, bears are not restorative.) I could have spent an entire semester talking about the direct benefits of spending time in nature—improved cognition, emotional states, helping behavior, pro-environmental behavior, reduced aggression, and crime, increased physical health, increased mental health, increases in connection to others and the physical environment, less rumination, more thoughts about others, the list goes on and on.
Nonetheless, we don't spend much time in nature, on average. Americans spend almost 90 percent of their time indoors! From this, it seems reasonable to assume that we might underestimate the impact of nature time on our well-being. Indeed, some research has shown exactly this (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011). However, this isn't the whole story.
Based on an analysis of some data a colleague and I collected a few years back, it seems that people, on average, have an intuition that nature is beneficial to them in one way or another. The fact that we prefer natural environments over urban ones, and that this preference directly impacts our mood (Meidenbauer et al., 2020), is further evidence that we aren't completely clueless.
It might also be that individual differences matter. Based on the results of an in-class poll, my environmental psychology students showed higher levels of feeling connected to nature than the average American. They also did a mini replication of Nisbet and Zelenski (2011), and unlike that paper, these students were pretty well calibrated about the emotional benefits they'd gain from a nature walk. This is consistent with the idea that people with stronger nature connectedness seek out nature interactions more, and as a consequence, may be more familiar with the benefits it confers.
From this, it can be argued that we seem to realize our environment matters somewhat and that nature exposure would be good for us (and some of us are more likely to realize this than others). Nonetheless, we typically don't prioritize changing our immediate surroundings by adding plants or going for walks through natural spaces. And we definitely don't often go for a walk through a park without our smartphones.
Based on recent research and my own experiences as an instructor talking to students about these issues, right now I see two major barriers. A notable one is that for some, there is minimal access to nature due to where they live, whether it be difficulty reaching a natural space or weather that makes it more challenging to go outside.
However, plenty of us have access to nature and don't take advantage of it. I would argue that (and several fellow scientists agree) even if we have some vague notion that it's good for us, the pull of other ways to spend our recreation and leisure time, such as endlessly entertaining devices and media, is extremely challenging to override.
So what do we do? Well, first, don't beat yourself up for not already considering your environment more. We live in a world where we are increasingly disconnected from the natural world and connected to our devices. But can you think of ways to bring more nature, more objects that bring you joy (like art or photos), into your home or working environment? Can you resolve to at least try to spend some time in a natural space (ideally, phoneless) once a week to start, and see if you develop a better sense of how it affects you?
I think the fundamental realization we lack is that even small changes to our surroundings or modest exposures to restorative environments can affect us, and it doesn't take a wilderness retreat to gain some calm and clear our heads. Further, these experiences are likely to build over time, with more awareness of the ways our environment affects us, and increased time investing in our well-being through restorative environments, we can move towards a healthier, happier version of ourselves. A small change and a pretty good resolution for 2024.
Nisbet EK, Zelenski JM. Underestimating nearby nature: affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychol Sci. 2011;22: 1101–1106.
Meidenbauer KL, Stenfors CUD, Bratman GN, Gross JJ, Schertz KE, Choe KW, et al. The affective benefits of nature exposure: What’s nature got to do with it? J Environ Psychol. 2020;72: 101498.