According to a new study, “prosocial spending” may be as good for blood pressure as a healthy diet and exercise
A lot of people believe that the way to become happier and healthier is by spending money on one’s self. Putting in extra hours at work and saving up money to be able to buy the things that are believed to bring happiness. However, some research has shown that in terms of health, this isn’t exactly the way to go.
Past research has shown that when money is spent on others, greater well-being is experienced than if that money was spent on one’s self. Could something as simple as buying a friend dinner or donating to charity improve our health, too—and if so, how?
According to a paper published this February in the journal Health Psychology, it can—and one way it works is by lowering blood pressure.
In an initial study, researchers looked at the relationship between giving money to others (or “prosocial spending”) and blood pressure, a simple measure of cardiovascular health. One hundred eighty-six adults who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure were asked to indicate how much money they spent on charities and other causes, and then followed up with two years later. By then, the participants who had initially spent the most on causes had lower blood pressure than participants who had spent less money. This association held even after accounting for the effects of income, education level, and age.
In a second study, the researchers looked at whether spending money on others could actually cause a reduction in blood pressure. On three days during a six-week study, 73 participants with high blood pressure were instructed to spend $40 given to them by the researchers. Half were told to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were told to spend the money on others. The researchers found that the participants who had spent money on others had lower blood pressure at the end of the study. Notably, this effect appeared to be as large as the benefits of healthy diet and exercise.
Why does prosocial spending have these benefits? One possibility is that it increases how socially connected people feel. Feeling closer to the ones who have received help can enhance relationships with others, which have a large impact on health.
Ashley Whillans, doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the paper, says that prosocial spending may also work to reduce the negative health effects of stress. According to Whillans, future research on prosocial spending and health could investigate whether “helping others protects us from the stresses and strains of our day-to-day lives.”
How to maximize the health benefits of giving
If you are looking to spend money on others, researchers have found several ways to make sure that you get the greatest benefit from your spending.
Whillans reports that participants appeared to benefit most when they chose to spend money on people they were close to. This accords with past research suggesting that spending money on others benefits well-being most when it makes givers feel more socially connected.
Additionally, giving seems to be best when the choice to help others comes intrinsically: When it’s pressured, the same psychological benefits are not likely to be experienced. Whillans and her co-authors point out that feeling burdened can undermine cardiovascular health, so helping others may not be as beneficial if we feel pressured to do so.
When giving money and time to others, research suggests, we end up gaining something as a result: We experience increases in health and well-being. In particular, giving to others may help strengthen our relationships and foster resilience in the face of stress. Even giving small amounts of money can be beneficial, Whillans reminds us: “It is possible to maximize the happiness and health benefits of every dollar.”
Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927) was a Swedish scientist and probably the first person to ever mention climate change due to energy use in human activity, when he proposed a relation between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and temperature. Several decades later, Al Gore made an impact in collective culture with “An Inconvenient Truth”, a Documentary in which the former vice president of the United States aims to educate society about Global warming presenting a wide repertoire of facts and information in a thoughtful and compelling way.
The most talked-about documentary in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival has been criticized. Due to some of the phenomena presented, Al Gore was accused of exaggeration and alarmism, but most of what is proposed on the film is accurate, according to expert witnesses.
Another uncomfortable truth is that the issue with Climate Change is overwhelming. The science is confusing and predictions about the fate of the planet may vary.
The New York Times have put together a list of quick answers to often-asked questions about climate change. This should give you a running start on understanding the problem.
1. How much is the planet heating up?
1.7 degrees is actually a significant amount.
As of October 2015, the Earth had warmed by about 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, when records begin at a global scale. That figure includes the surface of the ocean. The warming is greater over land, and greater still in the Arctic and parts of Antarctica.
The number may sound low, but as an average over the surface of an entire planet, it is actually high, which explains why much of the world’s land ice is starting to melt and the oceans are rising at an accelerating pace. The heat accumulating in the Earth because of human emissions is roughly equal to the heat that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs exploding across the planet every day.
Scientists believe most and probably all of the warming since 1950 was caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. If emissions continue unchecked, they say the global warming could ultimately exceed 8 degrees Fahrenheit, which would transform the planet and undermine its capacity to support a large human population.
2. How much trouble are we in?
For future generations, big trouble.
The risks are much greater over the long run than over the next few decades, but the emissions that create those risks are happening now. Over the coming 25 or 30 years, scientists say, the climate is likely to resemble that of today, although gradually getting warmer. Rainfall will be heavier in many parts of the world, but the periods between rains will most likely grow hotter and therefore drier. The number of hurricanes and typhoons may actually fall, but the ones that do occur will draw energy from a hotter ocean surface, and therefore may be more intense, on average, than those of the past. Coastal flooding will grow more frequent and damaging.
Longer term, if emissions continue to rise unchecked, the risks are profound. Scientists fear climate effects so severe that they might destabilize governments, produce waves of refugees, precipitate the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals in Earth’s history, and melt the polar ice caps, causing the seas to rise high enough to flood most of the world’s coastal cities.
All of this could take hundreds or even thousands of years to play out, conceivably providing a cushion of time for civilization to adjust, but experts cannot rule out abrupt changes, such as a collapse of agriculture, that would throw society into chaos much sooner. Bolder efforts to limit emissions would reduce these risks, or at least slow the effects, but it is already too late to eliminate the risks entirely.
3. Is there anything I can do?
Fly less, drive less, waste less.
You can reduce your own carbon footprint in lots of simple ways, and most of them will save you money. You can plug leaks in your home insulation to save power, install a smart thermostat, switch to more efficient light bulbs, turn off the lights in any room where you are not using them, drive fewer miles by consolidating trips or taking public transit, waste less food, and eat less meat.
Perhaps the biggest single thing individuals can do on their own is to take fewer airplane trips; just one or two fewer plane rides per year can save as much in emissions as all the other actions combined. If you want to be at the cutting edge, you can look at buying an electric or hybrid car, putting solar panels on your roof, or both.
If you want to offset your emissions, you can buy certificates, with the money going to projects that protect forests, capture greenhouse gases and so forth. Some airlines sell these to offset emissions from their flights, and after some scandals in the early days, they started to scrutinize the projects closely, so the offsets can now be bought in good conscience. You can also buy offset certificates in a private marketplace, from companies such as TerraPass in San Francisco that follow strict rules set up by the state of California; some people even give these as holiday gifts. Yet another way: In states that allow you to choose your own electricity supplier, you can often elect to buy green electricity; you pay slightly more, with the money going into a fund that helps finance projects like wind farms.
In the end, though, experts do not believe the needed transformation in the energy system can happen without strong state and national policies. So speaking up and exercising your rights as a citizen matters as much as anything else you can do.
4. What’s the optimistic scenario?
Several things have to break our way.
In the best case that scientists can imagine, several things happen: Earth turns out to be less sensitive to greenhouse gases than currently believed; plants and animals manage to adapt to the changes that have already become inevitable; human society develops much greater political will to bring emissions under control; and major technological breakthroughs occur that help society both to limit emissions and to adjust to climate change.
The two human-influenced variables are not entirely independent, of course: Technological breakthroughs that make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels would also make it easier to develop the political will for rapid action.
Scientists say the odds of all these things breaking our way are not very high, unfortunately. The Earth could just as easily turn out to be more sensitive to greenhouse gases than less. Global warming seems to be causing chaos in parts of the natural world already, and that seems likely to get worse, not better. So in the view of the experts, simply banking on a rosy scenario without any real plan would be dangerous. They believe the only way to limit the risks is to limit emissions.
5. Will reducing meat in my diet help the climate?
Yes, beef especially.
Agriculture of all types produces greenhouse gases that warm the planet, but meat production is especially harmful – and beef is the most environmentally damaging form of meat. Some methods of cattle production demand a lot of land, contributing to destruction of forests; the trees are typically burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Other methods require huge amounts of water and fertilizer to grow food for the cows.
The cows themselves produce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that causes short-term warming. Meat consumption is rising worldwide as the population grows, and as economic development makes people richer and better able to afford meat.
This is worrisome: Studies have found that if the whole world were to start eating beef at the rate Americans eat it, produced by the methods typically used in the United States, that alone might erase any chance of staying below an internationally agreed-upon limit on global warming. Pork production creates somewhat lower emissions than beef production, and chicken is lower still. So reducing your meat consumption, or switching from beef and pork to chicken in your diet, are both moves in the right direction. Of course, as with any kind of behavioral change meant to benefit the climate, this will only make a difference if lots of other people do it, too, reducing the overall demand for meat products.
6. What’s the worst case scenario?
There are many.
That is actually hard to say, which is one reason scientists are urging that emissions be cut; they want to limit the possibility of any worst-case scenario coming to pass. Perhaps the greatest fear is a collapse of food production, accompanied by escalating prices and mass starvation. Even with runaway emissions growth, it is unclear how likely this would be, as farmers are able to adjust their crops and farming techniques, to a degree, to adapt to climatic changes. Another possibility would be a disintegration of the polar ice sheets, leading to fast-rising seas that would force people to abandon many of the world’s great cities and would lead to the loss of trillions of dollars worth of property and other assets. Scientists also worry about other wild-card scenarios like the predictable cycles of Asian monsoons’ becoming less reliable. Billions of people depend on monsoons to provide water for crops, so any disruptions could be catastrophic.
7. Will a tech breakthrough help us?
Even Bill Gates says don’t count on it, unless we commit the cash.
As more companies, governments and researchers devote themselves to the problem, the chances of big technological advances are improving. But even many experts who are optimistic about technological solutions warn that current efforts are not enough. For instance, spending on basic energy research is only a quarter to a third of the level that several in-depth reports have recommended. And public spending on agricultural research has stagnated even though climate change poses growing risks to the food supply. People like Bill Gates have argued that crossing our fingers and hoping for technological miracles is not a strategy — we have to spend the money that would make these things more likely to happen.
8. How much will the seas rise?
The real question is not how high, but how fast.
The ocean is rising at a rate of about a foot per century. That causes severe effects on coastlines, forcing governments and property owners to spend tens of billions of dollars fighting erosion. But if that rate continued, it would probably be manageable, experts say.
The risk is that the rate will accelerate markedly. If emissions continue unchecked, then the temperature at the Earth’s surface could soon resemble a past epoch called the Pliocene, when a great deal of ice melted and the ocean rose by something like 80 feet compared to today. A recent study found that burning all the fossil fuels in the ground would fully melt the polar ice sheets, raising the sea level by more than 160 feet over an unknown period.
With all of that said, the crucial issue is probably not how much the oceans are going to rise, but how fast. And on that point, scientists are pretty much flying blind. Their best information comes from studying Earth’s history, and it suggests that the rate can on occasion hit a foot per decade, which can probably be thought of as the worst-case scenario. A rate even half that would force rapid retreat from the coasts and, some experts think, throw human society into crisis. Even if the rise is much slower, many of the world’s great cities will flood eventually. Studies suggest that big cuts in emissions could slow the rise, buying crucial time for society to adapt to an altered coastline.
9. Are the predictions reliable?
They’re not perfect, but they’re grounded in solid science.
The idea that Earth is sensitive to greenhouse gases is confirmed by many lines of scientific evidence. For instance, the basic physics suggesting that an increase of carbon dioxide traps more heat was discovered in the 19th century, and has been verified in thousands of laboratory experiments.
Climate science does contain uncertainties, of course. The biggest is the degree to which global warming sets off feedback loops, such as a melting of sea ice that will darken the surface and cause more heat to be absorbed, melting more ice, and so forth. It is not clear exactly how much the feedbacks will intensify the warming; some of them could even partially offset it. This uncertainty means that computer forecasts can give only a range of future climate possibilities, not absolute predictions.
But even if those computer forecasts did not exist, a huge amount of evidence suggests that scientists have the basic story right. The most important evidence comes from the study of past climate conditions, a field known as paleoclimate research. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air has fluctuated naturally in the past, and every time it rises, the Earth warms up, ice melts, and the ocean rises. A hundred miles inland from today’s East Coast, seashells can be dug from ancient beaches that are three million years old, a blink of an eye in geologic time. These past conditions are not a perfect guide to the future, either, because humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the air far faster than nature has ever done.
10. Why do people question Climate Change?
Most of the attacks on climate science are coming from libertarians and other political conservatives who do not like the policies that have been proposed to fight global warming. Instead of negotiating over those policies and trying to make them more subject to free-market principles, they have taken the approach of blocking them by trying to undermine the science.
This ideological position has been propped up by money from fossil-fuel interests, which have paid to create organizations, fund conferences and the like. The scientific arguments made by these groups usually involve cherry-picking data, such as focusing on short-term blips in the temperature record or in sea ice, while ignoring the long-term trends.
The most extreme version of climate denialism is to claim that scientists are engaged in a worldwide hoax to fool the public so that the government can gain greater control over people’s lives. As the arguments have become more strained, many oil and coal companies have begun to distance themselves publicly from climate denialism, but some are still helping to finance the campaigns of politicians who espouse such views.
A Pullitzer price winner assets on how being more productive without sacrificing happiness
When Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Charles Duhigg talks about productivity, he’s not just talking about efficiency and profits and time management. To him, what it means to be productive is bound up with the idea of happiness.
Productivity is figuring out “the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort,” writes the New York Times reporter in his new book, Smarter Faster Better. “It’s about getting things done without sacrificing everything we care about along the way.”
Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, was primarily about action—specifically, how habits drive nearly everything we do in life and in business. Now, Smarter Faster Better looks at how the happiest and most productive among us think: how they motivate themselves, stay focused, make decisions, and absorb information.
“Productive people and companies force themselves to make choices most other people are content to ignore. Productivity emerges when people push themselves to think differently,” he writes.
Berkeley’s Greater Good writer Kira M. Newman had the chance to speak with Duhigg to explore the connection between productivity and happiness more deeply, and how we can apply principles of productivity to our quest for a more meaningful life.
Kira M. Newman: Smarter Faster Better is a book about why some people and some organizations are so much more productive than others. How can we apply its lessons to the goal of living a happier, more fulfilling life?
Charles Duhigg: Many people feel like they’re not fulfilled and not satisfied because they feel completely overwhelmed by what they’re being asked to get done every single day.
The most productive people only have 24 hours in each day, just like we do. What’s different about them is they’re better at encouraging themselves to think more deeply about what actually matters—what they should be spending time on—rather than reacting to the demands around them. They’re more practiced at thinking about what the right priorities are, how I self-motivate about the things that matter to me most.
In many ways, it’s because they set up contemplative routines in their life, habits that they return to that allow them to reflect on what they’re doing and whether they’re making the best choices at that particular moment. Life gets so busy and so overwhelming that it’s oftentimes hard to reflect, hard to think. But we know that the most important step in being productive, in being satisfied and fulfilled, is giving ourselves time and space to think about what’s most important to us.
KN: Does creativity have a role to play in this process, and what would that look like?
CD: Creativity looks like exposing yourself to a whole bunch of new experiences that you haven’t had previously. Journaling is great because it creates a space for contemplation. If you are having new experiences, if you’re pushing yourself to go to museums you’ve never gone to before, or performances you’ve never seen, or to meet new kinds of people, and then that’s it—you’re not taking that information and you’re not somehow processing it—then you’re not really going to benefit from it in the way that you’re hoping to.
What is key is to push yourself to somehow contemplate on that. And simply saying “contemplate on that” isn’t enough because we’re all so busy; we have kids and we have jobs and life conspires to fill up our days. So the most productive and successful people tend to find ways to force themselves to think more deeply, whether that means that they write letters to friends or they force themselves to exercise and not listen to music while they’re exercising so they can think about what’s coming up that day, or they’re using a gratitude journal as a way of thinking about what happened that was important to them that they can draw from.
There’s a huge amount of emphasis around gratitude, but what actually is gratitude? It’s a system of thinking to ourselves about what we are thankful for and then why: why that thing is important, why that thing matters. It’s that step of asking ourselves why that really allows us to learn the lessons from that experience. Why is critical to how we actually think. And thinking is the thing that allows us to become more productive or to become more creative or to become happier. You’re not happier because you turn your brain off; you’re happier because you encourage yourself to think more deeply about what actually matters.
KN: In your book, you talk about how a sense of control is crucial to self-motivation and productivity. How do we gain a sense of control over our own happiness and our own emotional experience?
CD: Our brain wants to exert control. Our brain has an innate need to feel some control over our lives, and we become self-motivated when we find ways to feel control over the situation that we’re in. Oftentimes, that means looking for this subversive opportunity to assert ourselves.
In the book, we talk about the example of a nursing home study. When researchers were trying to figure out why some people thrived in nursing homes and other people declined precipitously, they found that people who were most self-motivated to take advantage of the resources of a nursing home—to start exercise routines or to sign up for classes—went out of their way to find ways to prove to themselves that they were still alive, that they were in control of their own lives.
One of my favorite examples is one nursing home that would serve residents a meal on a tray, based on their medical needs, so you got this pre-served meal every night and every day. There was this one guy in particular who loved chocolate cake, and the nursing home would give him chocolate cake every single day. And he would sit down and—instead of eating the chocolate cake—trade it with his dining companions for fruit or something else. The researchers went to him and said, “Why are you doing this? You love chocolate cake. You told us you love chocolate cake.” And he said, “I would rather eat a meal of my own design than something delicious that’s been forced on me.”
That embodies the spirit we find in people who are particularly adept at self-motivation. They look for these opportunities to almost subversively assert their will. They look for these opportunities to do what they want to do instead of what the system around them wants them to do.
If you’re replying to emails, for instance, this might mean that you sit down and you open up a whole bunch of replies and you go through each one and you type a half-sentence simply asserting some preference. If someone’s asking you to take a meeting, you say, “Sure, I’ll do it, but I’m only going to spend 15 minutes.” Or if they’re asking you to go to lunch, you say, “Yeah, I’ll go to lunch with you, but we have to go to Indian food, that’s what I want to eat.”
That is how we actually cultivate our capacity for self-motivation. That’s how we trigger the parts of our brain where self-motivation resides.
The more we can find opportunities to take control, to assert ourselves, to be ourselves, to express our unique artistic vision or to make a choice, those are situations where our happiness is more likely to take root. The act of simply choosing makes our brain happy. And there are so many times when we feel like we don’t have a choice, but if you look closely enough, you can actually find some decision that allows you to assert who you are.
KN: For people who are reading lots of books telling them how to live more fulfilling and more productive lives, how can they turn all that knowledge into action?
CD: The key is that they have to actually interact with the ideas. The way we interact with the ideas is by forcing ourselves to explain them to others, by running experiments, by trying to figure out how to explain to ourselves what the idea was. This is called “disfluency” in the academic literature: We have to scuff up information, make it something we interact with, in order to actually learn from it.
The key to that, for instance, is saying, “Okay, I just read this book, it had this one idea, it’s kind of interesting. I’m going to come up with an experiment and I’m going to figure out what success for that experiment would look like and what failure for that experiment would look like, and then I’m going to do it.” So tomorrow, I’m going to try and respond to emails by typing half a sentence where I’m asserting myself somehow, or I’m going to spend my commute trying to envision every hour of the coming day and figure out “What’s my goal for this hour? What do I want to get done? How do I remind myself of that?”
When you’re coming up with experiments, when you’re looking at these ideas as hypotheses that you want to test, then you’re actually preparing yourself to really engage with the ideas, to learn from them—instead of just letting them slide past your eye.
Consciousness about practicing sports and working out has spread like wildfire among modern society in the last few decades. People are choosing to add some sort of exercise activity to their daily routine, along with healthy eating habits, making significant changes to their lifestyle.
There are plenty of activities that can keep us healthy, strong and active. While some spend hours at the gym with collective classes or personal training, others enjoy out-door activities that keep them tuned with Mother Nature. Walking, trekking, climbing, power walking, water sports… There are thousands of options to choose from.
However, we want to talk about two of the most effective and popular training activities you can make. Everyone is familiar with running, which has been getting popular thanks to the multiple events and famous marathons like New York City’s and Boston’s. If we add to this cardio exercise one of the ancient most effective mental and physical training, the yoga ashtanga, it will turn out to be a complete and effective training routine that will not only burn calories, strengthen and relax your muscles, gain elasticity and balance and tone your body but will also give you a mind control boost to a 100%.
For all those running lovers hitting the track field on a daily basis, the combination of this type of exercise along with the Ashatanga Yoga method will complete an ideal training routine for achieving your goals and getting you a top condition mentally and physically.
A perfect combination of two physical arts that join together to get us a harmonic connection between the mind and the body, thanks to sports and perseverance. So if you haven’t started practicing the Yoga Ashtanga method, you might begin giving it a try twice or three times a week, completing your routine.
We are spending more time indoors and online. But recent studies suggest that nature can help our brains and bodies to stay healthy
Scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.
“People have been discussing their profound experiences in nature for the last several 100 years—from Thoreau to John Muir to many other writers,” says researcher David Strayer, of the University of Utah. “Now we are seeing changes in the brain and changes in the body that suggest we are physically and mentally more healthy when we are interacting with nature.”
While he and other scientists may believe nature benefits our well-being, we live in a society where people spend more and more time indoors and online—especially children. Findings on how nature improves our brains brings added legitimacy to the call for preserving natural spaces—both urban and wild—and for spending more time in nature in order to lead healthier, happier, and more creative lives.
Here are some of the ways that science is showing how being in nature affects our brains and bodies.
Being in nature decreases stress
It’s clear that hiking—and any physical activity—can reduce stress and anxiety. But, there’s something about being in nature that may augment those impacts.
In one recent experiment conducted in Japan, participants were assigned to walk either in a forest or in an urban center (taking walks of equal length and difficulty) while having their heart rate variability, heart rate, and blood pressure measured. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their moods, stress levels, and other psychological measures.
Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress), and reported better moods and less anxiety, than those who walked in urban settings. The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.
In another study, researchers in Finland found that urban dwellers who strolled for as little as 20 minutes through an urban park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than those who strolled in a city center.
The reasons for this effect are unclear; but scientists believe that we evolved to be more relaxed in natural spaces. In a now-classic laboratory experiment by Roger Ulrich of Texas A&M University and colleagues, participants who first viewed a stress-inducing movie, and were then exposed to color/sound videotapes depicting natural scenes, showed much quicker, more complete recovery from stress than those who’d been exposed to videos of urban settings.
These studies and others provide evidence that being in natural spaces— or even just looking out of a window onto a natural scene—somehow soothes us and relieves stress.
Nature makes you happier and less brooding
Gregory Bratman, of Stanford University, has found evidence that nature may impact our mood in other ways, too.
In one 2015 study, he and his colleagues randomly assigned 60 participants to a 50-minute walk in either a natural setting (oak woodlands) or an urban setting (along a four-lane road). Before and after the walk, the participants were assessed on their emotional state and on cognitive measures, such as how well they could perform tasks requiring short-term memory. Results showed that those who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination (focused attention on negative aspects of oneself), and negative affect, as well as more positive emotions, in comparison to the urban walkers. They also improved their performance on the memory tasks.
In another study, he and his colleagues extended these findings by zeroing in on how walking in nature affects rumination—which has been associated with the onset of depression and anxiety—while also using fMRI technology to look at brain activity. Participants who took a 90-minute walk in either a natural setting or an urban setting had their brains scanned before and after their walks and were surveyed on self-reported rumination levels (as well as other psychological markers). The researchers controlled for many potential factors that might influence rumination or brain activity—for example, physical exertion levels as measured by heart rates and pulmonary functions.
Even so, participants who walked in a natural setting versus an urban setting reported decreased rumination after the walk, and they showed increased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain whose deactivation is affiliated with depression and anxiety—a finding that suggests nature may have important impacts on mood.
Bratman believes results like these need to reach city planners and others whose policies impact our natural spaces. “Ecosystem services are being incorporated into decision making at all levels of public policy, land use planning, and urban design, and it’s very important to be sure to incorporate empirical findings from psychology into these decisions,” he says.
Nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity
Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull for our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state.
Strayer is one of those researchers. He believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving.
“When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources,” he says.
In a 2012 study, he and his colleagues showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike—in fact, 47 percent more. Although other factors may account for his results—for example, the exercise or the camaraderie of being out together—prior studies have suggested that nature itself may play an important role. One in Psychological Science found that the impact of nature on attention restoration is what accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants.
This phenomenon may be due to differences in brain activation when viewing natural scenes versus more built-up scenes—even for those who normally live in an urban environment. In a recent study conducted by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and colleagues, participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) while they walked through an urban green space had brain EEG readings indicating lower frustration, engagement, and arousal, and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher engagement levels when moving out of the green area. This lower engagement and arousal may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.
It’s this kind of brain activity—sometimes referred to as “the brain default network”—that is tied to creative thinking, says Strayer. He is currently repeating his earlier 2012 study with a new group of hikers and recording their EEG activity and salivary cortisol levels before, during, and after a three-day hike. Early analyses of EEG readings support the theory that hiking in nature seems to rest people’s attention networks and to engage their default networks.
Strayer and colleagues are also specifically looking at the effects of technology by monitoring people’s EEG readings while they walk in an arboretum, either while talking on their cell phone or not. So far, they’ve found that participants with cell phones appear to have EEG readings consistent with attention overload, and can recall only half as many details of the arboretum they just passed through, compared to those who were not on a cell phone.
Though Strayer’s findings are preliminary, they are consistent with other people’s findings on the importance of nature to attention restoration and creativity.
“If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”
Nature may help you to be kind and generous
In a series of experiments published in 2014, Juyoung Lee, GGSC director Dacher Keltner, and other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the potential impact of nature on the willingness to be generous, trusting, and helpful toward others, while considering what factors might influence that relationship.
As part of their study, the researchers exposed participants to more or less subjectively beautiful nature scenes (whose beauty levels were rated independently) and then observed how participants behaved playing two economics games—the Dictator Game and the Trust Game—that measure generosity and trust, respectively. After being exposed to the more beautiful nature scenes, participants acted more generously and more trusting in the games than those who saw less beautiful scenes, and the effects appeared to be due to corresponding increases in positive emotion.
In another part of the study, the researchers asked people to fill out a survey about their emotions while sitting at a table where more or less beautiful plants were placed. Afterwards, the participants were told that the experiment was over and they could leave, but that if they wanted to they could volunteer to make paper cranes for a relief effort program in Japan. The number of cranes they made (or didn’t make) was used as a measure of their “prosociality” or willingness to help.
Results showed that the presence of more beautiful plants significantly increased the number of cranes made by participants, and that this increase was, again, mediated by positive emotion elicited by natural beauty. The researchers concluded that experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—perhaps by inspiring awe, a feeling akin to wonder, with the sense of being part of something bigger than oneself—which then leads to prosocial behaviors.
Support for this theory comes from an experiment conducted by Paul Piff of the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues, in which participants staring up a grove of very tall trees for as little as one minute experienced measurable increases in awe, and demonstrated more helpful behavior and approached moral dilemmas more ethically, than participants who spent the same amount of time looking up at a high building.
Nature makes you feel more alive
With all of these benefits to being out in nature, it’s probably no surprise that something about nature makes us feel more alive and vital. Being outdoors gives us energy, makes us happier, helps us to relieve the everyday stresses of our overscheduled lives, opens the door to creativity, and helps us to be kind to others.
No one knows if there is an ideal amount of nature exposure, though Strayer says that longtime backpackers suggest a minimum of three days to really unplug from our everyday lives. Nor can anyone say for sure how nature compares to other forms of stress relief or attention restoration, such as sleep or meditation. Both Strayer and Bratman say we need a lot more careful research to tease out these effects before we come to any definitive conclusions.
Still, the research does suggest there’s something about nature that keeps us psychologically healthy, and that’s good to know…especially since nature is a resource that’s free and that many of us can access by just walking outside our door. Results like these should encourage us as a society to consider more carefully how we preserve our wilderness spaces and our urban parks.
And while the research may not be conclusive, Strayer is optimistic that science will eventually catch up to what people like me have intuited all along—that there’s something about nature that renews us, allowing us to feel better, to think better, and to deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.
“You can’t have centuries of people writing about this and not have something going on,” says Strayer. “If you are constantly on a device or in front of a screen, you’re missing out on something that’s pretty spectacular: the real world.”