A new study, due to be published today, shows that people who have even the most cursory contact with nature, show greater compassion, caring and generosity.
In one type of experiment, the participants viewed either buildings, roads, city or deserts, lakes and other natural landscapes on a computer screen. The views were chosen to have similar colours, complexity and layout and participants were asked to notice colours and textures and imagine the sounds and smells. In another type of experiment, the participants were randomly assigned to labs without plants and labs with plants.
From The Situationist:
Across all four studies, people exposed to natural elements rated close relationships and community higher than they had previously. The questionnaire also measured how immersed viewers were in their environments and found that the more deeply engaged subjects were with natural settings, the more they valued community and closeness. By contrast, the more intensely participants focused on artificial elements, the higher they rated wealth and fame.
In practical terms, the participants were given $5 prize money which they could keep or give to an anonymous participant, who would then receive another $5. That person would have the choice to return the prize money to the original participant or keep it. The more that participants were immersed in the natural surroundings, the more likely they were to share and trust that they would get their money back.
Why is this so? Andrew Przybylski, one of the co-authors, thinks, based on the responses of the participants, that they connect with their authentic selves, and he traces that to evolution as hunter-gatherers. I don’t find that persuasive, but the authors’ other point, that a natural environment feels free of the stresses of our daily urban lives, makes more sense to me. I suspect that if nature was represented by being dropped into a dry savanna with the sound of lions roaring in the distance, or sitting on top of a mud-caked tsunami wrecked beach, the reaction might not be the same.
Trees smell good. The sound of water and birds is soothing. It isn’t just nature, it is nature in its peaceful guise, enjoying it with a full belly, no demands, and safety. To really know whether it is specifically a connection with nature that changes our outlook, the natural landscape would need to be compared to something peaceful but human-made, for example listening to a symphony played by an orchestra in a beautiful hall.
The experiment with the lab and plants is problematic for the same reason. Is it the plants themselves that make people feel better and more caring or is it that there is something that is not related to test tubes and stress? I would like to see the same experiment done with teddy-bears in the lab and see if there are the same or different results from putting plants there.
Lead author Netta Weinstein says that the study should be taken into account when thinking about urban planning and designing green spaces.
And this does remind me of indoor gardening. I lived in apartments for a long time and the only garden I had was inside. I took to indoor plants with enthusiasm, discovered I had a green thumb, and within a couple of years had over 50 plants, small and large, flowering and green. One summer I went away, secretly dreaming that all my plants would wither and die. In fact I drew a picture of myself with a wicked grin gazing at a wilting plant as one of the exercises in The Artist’s Way. I’d left the plants in the care of a friend who didn’t have a green thumb, hoping that would take care of the overwhelming number of them. That was back in 1994, the summer I went to PEI and began The River Midnight. When I came home, I moved, and abandoned my poor plants. I kept one. A hoya which has not yet bloomed though my husband (not I!) takes good care of it. Our house is small. There is no place really to put plants. Unless…
There is that small table that is now occupied by a sewing machine, which I’ve used once or twice since I got it. That could hold a few plants. And I might be able to hang a basket in the kitchen. Can you see the wheels turning?