When Israeli researcher, Rachel Sebba, asked adults to recall the most happily memorable place from their childhood, almost all nominated an outdoor location. What made the outdoor place memorable Rachel Sebba found was not so much the beauty of the scenery but more the activities that had been enjoyed there.
Sebba puts this down to the intensity with which the natural environment is experienced in childhood. Children experience the natural environment in a deep and direct manner, not as a background for events, but rather as the enabler and stimulator of experiences. Children themselves have indicated that they are attracted to natural environments because these are full of novelty, variety and interest and because they contain so much that can be played in, on and with. Elements such as rocks, trees and water can be particularly significant in children’s play. Children also value the opportunities nature gives to claim territories, to have time-out from adults and to get on with “secret children’s business”.
I was prompted to think again about the power and pleasure of childhood experiences when I read an article on the relationship between money and happiness by three consumer psychologists, Elizabeth Dunn, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson.
They confirm the common view that money is no guarantee of happiness. There is a relationship between the two but it is a weak one. A reason for this, they say, is that people are bad at anticipating what will them happy and make poor purchasing decisions as a consequence. A very common mistake we all make, for example, is to overestimate the happiness we will get from buying “things”. Often the anticipation of ownership is more enjoyable than ownership itself. The novelty of the new car, work of art or piece of jewellery, for example, can wear off quite rapidly.
But when it comes to experiences, it is a different story. Based on research findings, Elizabeth Dunn and her associates say that we are far more likely to derive happiness by buying experiences instead of things. For one thing, experiences vary – unlike objects – so they retain their novelty value for far longer. For another, experiences offer more scope for happy recollections. It is not only childhood nature experiences that stay in our memory. Happy adult experiences can do the same, especially if we have them frequently. Better to have small (and less expensive) doses of happy experiences frequently than to have single, large (and possibly more expensive) doses infrequently, Dunn and co suggest.
Frequent happy experiences are easy to come by in nature – and most cost little or nothing at all. But if you have a mind to convert some of your money into happiness, then nature provides opportunities for doing this as well – establishing and maintaining a garden, taking a scenic bus trip through the “Red Centre”, having a farm-stay holiday, rafting a wild river and trekking in Nepal, for example. Even though these look like one-off investments, they work well as happiness generators because they are made up of many experiences.
I have been fortunate to have a lifetime of nature experiences. Many came my way easily and at little cost, but others required money that could have been used otherwise, including acquiring more things. But I don’t regret for one minute choosing in favour of “doing” rather than “having”.
As Jon Krakauer writes in Into the Wild:
The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.