As a pediatrician, I am incredibly lucky to work with children, day in and day out. It’s impossible not to be captured by their amazement with the mundane and their joy in the smallest moments.
I’m often reminded of Winslow Homer’s 1872 painting, “Snap the Whip,” depicting boys playing with abandon in a field outside their rural schoolhouse. So eloquently portrayed is the simplicity of another time, kids out in the natural world for no other purpose than to play, freely and without a care in the world.
Contrast this with contemporary schoolyards with their meticulously designed jungle gyms and artificial surfacing, often empty throughout the day as more and more schools abolish recess or replace free play with highly structured, adult-supervised activities. I’ve realized, as I see increasingly anxious and depressed children come to my office looking for guidance, that the answers often lie not in my prescription pad but outside my window.
We’ve accumulated an abundance of data demonstrating that spending time in natural settings has a profoundly positive impact on our mood.
The entire field of ecopsychology has developed to explore this relationship. One very recent publication from Dr. Kirsten Beyer and associates at the Medical College of Wisconsin described the influence of green space on mental health outcomes, concluding that “higher levels of neighborhood green space were associated with significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress” and that “’greening’ could be a potential population mental health improvement strategy in the United States.”
Canadian researchers John Zelenski and Elizabeth Nisbet recently published groundbreaking work elaborating on this phenomenon. They found that nature in fact makes us happy in its own unique way, something they call “nature relatedness.” Cultivating our deep personal connection to the world around us nurtures our emotional well being in ways distinct from other ties like family and friends. Zelenski and Nisbet go one step further, arguing (as Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell in Psychology Today summarizes) that our “psychological connections with nature have the capacity to facilitate sustainable attitudes and may be an important tool in preserving our environment.”
Is it possible that something as simple as happiness could be the motivating factor to stimulate sustained ecological behavioral change?
We do know that happiness can indeed be a powerful motivator for changing human behavior.
Claudia Haase and colleagues studied a diverse group of teens from Los Angeles and from Germany, examining whether or not mood influences motivation to pursue challenging goals. Indeed, Haase concluded, “When individuals experience positive affect, they become more motivated to invest time and effort, and overcome obstacles when pursuing their goals, in part because they believe they have more control over attaining their goals.”
If rising rates of environmentally linked illnesses like asthma and autism and scientific predictions of wide ranging health impacts of climate change prove too indirect to stimulate eco-action, can we leverage naturophilia to nurture environmental stewardship? Professor Paul Bloom at Yale makes a strong case.
“Put aside for the moment practical considerations like the need for clean air and water, and ignore as well spiritual worries about the sanctity of Mother Earth or religious claims that we are the stewards of creation. Look at it from the coldblooded standpoint of the enhancement of the happiness of our everyday lives. Real natural habitats provide significant sources of pleasure for modern humans. We intuitively grasp this, and this knowledge underlies the anxiety that we feel about nature’s loss. It might be that one day we will be able to replace the experience of nature with “Star Trek” holodecks and robotic animals. But until then, this basic fact about human pleasure is an excellent argument for keeping the real thing.”
Being in nature makes us happy, and being happy motivates us to take better care of the Earth. I take great pleasure in this circular logic, echoing the Native American belief system that our wellbeing is intricately tied to that of our universe; we are the Earth, and the Earth is us. If joy in nature motivates us to serve as more mindful co-inhabitants with our environment, we have much to celebrate.
More Reading and Resources
CONSERVATION EXHAUSTION and the Children and Nature Movement by Ron Swaisgood
WHY I PRESCRIBE NATURE – by Robert Zarr, M.D.
VITAMIN “N” and the American Academy of Pediatrics by Mary Brown, MD
THE WHOLE CHILD: A Pediatrician Recommends the Nature Prescription by Larry Rosen, MD
GROW OUTSIDE! Richard Louv’s Keynote Address to the American Academy of Pediatrics
Photo by Larry Rosen, MD