Hoo boy. We have been manufacturing world class outdoor items for over ten years now. Someday we’ll find a way to archive them all in a more searchable and user-friendly online tome. For now, we like to pull older pieces off the shelf and put them back on the homepage for new readers to enjoy. Like this beautiful piece by an old friend of AJ Brook Sutton, which uses cutting-edge science to answer the question: How rad are we, anyway? – Ed.
Let’s put that aside. If you’re a jerk, you’ll probably stay a jerk. Spending time in nature may not make you kinder, but it will encourage you to be more altruistic.
In 2014, an article was published that found a positive link between time spent in nature and generally higher levels of happiness. In two studies conducted by John Zelenski and Elizabeth Nisbet, both of Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, results showed that happiness could be reliably predicted by how connected a person was to the great outdoors.
With all due respect to fine science, that’s preaching to the choir, isn’t it?
It’s intuitive to quantify — or at least feel — a more contented life after being outdoors. Frederick Law Olmstead knew this in the 1850s when he placed Central Park in the midst of the most expensive real estate in the country. And we now know this from our own experiences. Just try to make someone smile after returning from a three-week trip to the Grand Canyon or an all-day bike ride. Difficult, if not impossible.
Along with our general sense of well-being, we have to admit that our devotion to the outside world can come with a little side of smugness. We don’t need to swing as far as Ed Abbey on the anarchist spectrum to indulge in some righteousness about wilderness. Don’t you feel that a day spent outdoors is more fulfilling than a day spent in front of a screen?
So if outdoor enthusiasts are happy, but maybe a little smug, are we actually nicer people for the time we spend immersed in nature?
Prepare to crack a shoulder patting yourself on the back, because, yes: spending time in nature increases generosity towards others and decreases self-centered values.
To find out, we had to look back at four studies published in 2009 by Netta Weinstein, Andrew Przybylski and Richard Ryan, all from the University of Rochester. In an article titled “Can Nature Make Us More Caring?” Effects of Nature Immersion on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity”, researchers prove that spending more time in nature increases our social empathy and social optimism. Essentially, it makes us less selfish.
Some key findings:
• Spending time in natural (non-man-made) environments is directly related to placing greater value on goals that build community and intimacy.
• Conversely, spending time outdoors has the effect of giving less value to self-centered goals, such as wealth, image and fame.
• Other studies have shown that more time spent in nature is directly related to generous decision-making.
• Spending more time indoors and in man-made environments increased the value placed on self-centered goals and had no impact on community-centered values.
• For best results, immersion is key. Any distraction or unnatural external stimuli diminishes the strength of the results.
Here’s the crazy part: In order to maintain scientific integrity, researchers needed a controlled environment. For three of the four studies, exposure to nature took place in a closed room showing slides of different environments. The images of nature alone were powerful enough to move people emotionally and shift their values towards more altruism. In the fourth study, they upped the ante by adding plants to the room. That’s it!
The results indicated that deeper immersion yields deeper results of the same vein. So imagine how generous these people would be if they were allowed to sit in a forest for an hour?
For the skeptics among us, it should be noted that the researchers applied statistical analysis to mitigate the biased responses and expected positive effects of the manipulated environment.
Overall, the studies have focused on two general questions. Does spending time in nature affect the importance (value) of developing and maintaining meaningful and satisfying relationships with others? And does it also impact behaviors or inspire actions that benefit the community as a whole?
The resounding answer to both questions was yes. “These results are interesting because they suggest that nature, which is inherently independent of human intervention, brings people closer to others,” say the authors from their research. “Whereas man-made environments direct goals towards more selfish or self-interested ends.”
Photos by Steve Casimiro