I have long thought that one of the things most wrong with contemporary society is the distance from Nature at which most of us live. It has seemed to me that the materialism, greed, lack of community, lack of empathy with both other humans and with our planet that mark our society so strongly must result from living and working in a built environment, bombarded by relentless media and the advertising that comes with it, constantly immersed in commercialism, financial worry, the acquisition of "stuff" and all the dehumanizing effects of life in this environment. In a previous post I wrote about my own personal restorative experience as a volunteer at the Rio Grande Nature Center, an experience that continues and only gets better with passing time. This place and the time I spend there, as well as many other natural places and experiences in my life have taught me that Nature is for me a deep healer, the place I go to pull the fragments of my life, my soul, back together, if only temporarily. And, it often is temporary - we all have to return to the traffic, the jobs, the griefs, the bills and worries of daily life in the 21st century, but some of the effects of time spent on a beach, a riverbank, a mountainside, in a forest or wetland, observing birds and other creatures, listening to the wind, the waves, birdcalls, coyote howls (Nature is never really silent, I have found) - some of the transformative power of this time stays with me for a good while, at a core level.
So, I knew that nature makes me, and probably most of us, feel better. But one of my ranger friends at the Nature Center passed along this press release from the University of Rochester on the results of a study researched and written by a team from the university, and published last September in The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. ( available only by subscripton) . Titled Can Nature Make Us More Caring? Results of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations, the study reveals the surprising fact that experiencing our natural surroundings can have social as well as personal benefits.Richard Ryan, coauthor and professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester goes on to say: "While the salubrious effects of nature are well documented, from increasing happiness and physical health to lowering stress, this study shows that the benefits extend to a person's values and actions. Exposure to natural as opposed to man-made environments leads people to value community and close relationships and to be more generous with money."
The four experiments in this research interestingly show that exposure to nature can affect our priorities and alter what we think is important in life. In short, we become less self-focused and more other-focused. Our value priorities shift from personal gain, to a broader focus on community and connection with others. The researchers explored responses to extrinsic life aspirations, such as financial success, or being admired by other people, and intrinsicaspirations, like deep and lasting relationships or contributing to the betterment of society. The research subjects exposed to the nature images scored significantly lower on extrinsic life aspirations, and significantly higher on intrinsic life aspirations.Good explanation of the research methodology here.
In an article in Scientific American, P. Wesley Schulz, a psychology professor at California State Univ., San Marcos, draws from this research many of the same conclusions I have come to simply by observation of the world around me - that there has been a huge decline in the amount (and quality) of time spent by both adults and children in the natural world, and that " this reduction in our exposure to the natural world could drive large-scale shifts in societal values. As their results show, experiences with strictly built environments lead to life aspirations that are more self-focused. These results may help explain the increase in aspirations for fame, wealth, power, achievement, and other self-enhancing values in Western society and predict that this trend is likely to continue." I think this large-scale shift is already happening; how could anyone who has lived through the past decade not see where our aspirations as a society are focused? So, what is the answer? There are many useful applications in these results for architects, city planners, and others responsible for the environments we live in, parks and greenspace will help, but maybe what we need to do is load Wall Street, Congress, and K Street into a fleet of large tour busses and drop them deep in the wilderness of the Canadian Rockies, leave them there for a period of months, with only the barest essentials for survival. After that they could be subjected to the same tests the research subjects responded to in Ryan et al's studies. If their responses indicate a major change in the intrinsic values of these groups, maybe they could return to work. I dunno, though. This may be such a collection of dead souls that expecting them to reconnect with their authentic selves is simply dreaming.
Yes, okay, it's a daydream. In the end all we can do is keep ourselves and our children as closely connected to the natural world as possible. In the words of Netta Weinstein, one of the study's authors: “We are influenced by our environment in ways that we are not aware of,” she says. Because of the hidden benefits of connecting with nature, people should take advantage of opportunities to get away from built environments and, when inside, they should surround themselves with plants, natural objects, and images of the natural world." (Cross-posted from Quid Nunc?)