Over the past few decades, science has demonstrated the beneficial impact of nature on everything from stress relief to healing. Now, a 2009 study suggests that exposure to the natural environment may also enhance our ability to care, our appreciation of community, even our generosity.
The Benefits of Appreciating Nature – Why Exposure to Nature Makes us More Generous
The study, co-authored by University of Rochester psychology and psychiatry professor, Richard Ryan, found that when presented with an opportunity to give, study subjects exposed to nature gave more money than those who were exposed to man-made environments. And it didn’t take a walk in the park or a romp in the woods to elicit that response. Just looking at a photograph of nature was enough to increase people’s generosity.
So why would staring at a picture of forest make people more generous?
According to Ryan, getting in touch with nature seems to reconnect us what we truly value. “We found that when people were exposed to a natural environment, they had more of what we call autonomy, they were more in touch with their own basic values and interests. And when you’re more in touch with your core values, you’re more likely to be sensitive to the needs of others,” Ryan explained in a taped interview.
People connected to nature also seemed to feel more connected to the world as a whole, and this probably breeds a greater sense of responsibility which may connect to greater generosity.
The Social Benefits of Nature in Cities
The study also found that when subjects were exposed to man-made or artificial environments, they were more interested in wealth and fame — those who were deeply engaged in nature assigned greater value to community, closeness and social outcomes.
For Ryan, the implication of these findings are pretty clear: “We would do well to pay more attention to the living world around us, because that connects us more closely to the human race,” he said, adding that, “One of the implications of these findings is that we need to have more natural elements in our cities our building and our workplaces.”
From Appreciating Nature to Protecting Nature: A Message for Environmentalists
The study’s lead author, Hamburg University psychologist, Netta Weinstein, agrees with Ryan, arguing that city green spaces and parks, as well as representations of nature in the workplace, could help to enhance our connections with one another. The reverse, she says in a University of Rochester News article, may be equally true: “To the extent that our links with nature are disrupted, we may also lose some connection with each other. We are influenced by nature in ways we are not aware of. The more we appreciate nature, the more we benefit.”
So perhaps the environmental agenda should include promoting the social benefits of nature. The evidence suggests that it won’t just help the human community. A more caring and generous society might also benefit nature.
Susan Hagen, “Nature makes us more caring, study says,” University of Rochester News, 09,30, 2009
Weinstein, A. K. Przybylski, & R. M. Ryan, (2009). “Can nature make us more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations and generosity,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35,1315-1329