Here’s your new, valid excuse next time you’re running a few minutes behind: you stopped to smell the roses, because of science. A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology suggest that tuning into the natural world in small ways—like noticing a beautiful tree on your way to work—can improve your well-being and happiness.
Holli-Anne Passmore, a PhD psychology student at the University of British Columbia, and her fellow researchers designed a two-week study to test how time spent observing nature affected people’s well-being and outlook on life.
Here’s how it worked: 395 participants were assigned to one of three groups: a group told to observe nature, another directed to observe human-made objects around them and a group where subjects were told to carry on with their normal routines. The nature group was told to observe the outdoors and photograph things—like ivy on a building or birds—that caught their attention throughout the two weeks and write about how it made them feel. The human-made group did the same thing, but they were told to take note of the non-natural world, things like cars and clothes. All of the participants completed various questionnaires to measure their well-being and reflected on their experiences during the study after the two-week period.
The researchers found that participants who had observed and documented nature reported higher levels of individual well-being, a sense of general connectedness and “prosocial orientation,” as the study defines it, meaning they may have been more likely to help other people or society compared to participants in the other two groups.
The researchers also categorized the visual and written responses they got into different emotional themes. The nature photos were significantly more likely to be associated with happy emotional themes including peacefulness, rejuvenation, freedom, awe and hope, and tended to focus more on the nature itself. One participant noted, “I saw this little flower as I was coming back from my class. In the midst of all the other dying roses, this one was holding strong, and it really gave me a strong sense of hope. I had been through a long day and I was really tired, and seeing the flower just gave me a renewed sense of energy for the day.”
Photos from the human-made group were significantly more likely to be associated with emotional themes including annoyance, guilt, fatigue, safety and pride, according to the study. These also tended to respond to a “a memory, activity or function that the individual associated with the object/scene,” according to the study. For instance, one participant in that group answered, “I felt very thankful for this Whiteout because no matter how many times I mess up or make a mistake, I can always white it out and pretend like it never happened and start over.”
These findings support previous research on the positive impact that comes from being in nature and observing the world around you. “People are, in general, substantially happier when they are in nature, compared to when they are in a human-built environment,” the study authors write.
What’s also interesting is how participants reflected on their experience after the study had concluded. One person in the human-built group answered, “I definitely felt somewhat neutral to most objects in my environment that were human built, especially structural features or disposable objects. I did feel a connection to human made objects that were from people I loved or that symbolized something greater.”
Compare that to how a participant in the nature group answered: “I’m a very introverted person and I’m somewhat of a homebody. I actually originally dreaded getting this label –‘nature’– because I knew it would make me leave my house! But I was VERY pleasantly surprised and found my anxiety/stress levels decreasingly rapidly the more time I spent outside. Outside seems welcoming now and I look forward to spending more time outdoors with nature and animals. It’s fun and relaxing.”
What’s also valuable about this study is that it suggest you don’t need to go camping or climb Mount Everest to experience the mood-boosting benefits of being outdoors. That’s good news for people who don’t have the time or ability to take long walks in the wilderness or spend hours outside. As Passmore said in the study’s press release, “this is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”
Read the press release here.