Judging by reactions to one of my recent posts, I am not alone in being intrigued by the power of nature to trigger positive feelings towards others. I referred in the post to research showing that immediately after exposure to beautiful nature in the form of landscape photos and plant arrangements, people displayed heightened sociability and generosity.
And the story does not end there. Other research shows that nature can benefit relationships not only in the short-term but also in ways that are lasting. It does this by
- helping us as individuals to embrace social values, such as empathy, thoughtfulness and caring, that have an enduring influence on our behaviour, and
- creating conditions for healthy community life in the real world.
Values play a key role in human behaviour especially by shaping our long-term aspirations. According to the psychologists Tim Kasser and Richard Ryan, our life goals or aspirations fall into two major categories – extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic aspirations focus our attention on “products” that are not inherently rewarding but serve to secure rewards such as wealth, image and fame from external sources. By contrast, intrinsic aspirations point us towards goals that in themselves satisfy basic psychological needs such as affection, intimacy, personal growth and community membership. Clearly, intrinsic aspirations are more “other-oriented” or “prosocial” than extrinsic ones.
Studies done at the University of Rochester under the leadership of Netta Weinstein found that people who have sensuous, mindful and emotional interaction with natural scenes or living objects display stronger intrinsic aspirations.
This was more likely to be the case in people who
- had been more deeply immersed in the nature experiences – they gave higher ranked responses to questionnaire items such as, “How completely were all your senses engaged?”, “How much did you feel you were in the places you saw?”,
- reported a stronger sense of connection with nature as measured by the Connectedness to Nature Scale (If you are interested to see the questions comprising the scale, you will find them towards the end of the article) and
- were more self-directing or autonomous when expressing themselves and making decisions.
These findings are associated with brief exposures to nature, making it likely that longer lasting effects arise in “real-life” settings, where the presence of nature can be richer and more sustained.
Consistent evidence that this is the case comes from a series of studies conducted at the Robert Taylor Homes and a similar public housing development in Chicago. The Robert Taylor Homes are architecturally identical buildings (same size, layout, facilities, units, etc) in a line along a five km corridor. Each building is bordered on one side by a highway and railway line and on the opposite side by a municipal thoroughfare.
Originally each building was surrounded by grassland and trees but, over time, many of the green spaces have been asphalted over. This means that some of the buildings are surrounded by asphalt and concrete while others are still set in areas of grass and trees. As residents are allocated to the buildings on a random basis, conditions for a natural experiment have been created.
Researchers from the University of Chicago have taken advantage of this unique situation to study the effects of nature’s presence on community well-being. Based on their extensive work, they report that living in proximity to greenery is associated with
- lower rates of aggression
- lower incidence of property and violent crime
- greater sense of safety
- greater use of outdoor space
- more social networking
- stronger neighbourhood ties
- greater resilience in the face of life’s demands.
These are impressive findings, and coupled with what we know about the impact of nature on individual happiness, health and well-being, make a very strong case for bringing nature to our cities, especially to the buildings where we live.
But what are we seeing? – more and more barren multi-storey apartments rising higher and higher above our suburbs. We may be solving urban housing shortages but at what cost to individual and community well-being. The irony is that, in packing people together physically, we are often making it harder for them to come together socially.