THE DETAILS: In three of the four studies, participants were exposed to images of either natural or non-natural environments while listening to a guided imagery script that instructed them to tune into their environments, notice colors and textures, and imagine sounds and smells. Before and afterwards, they were asked to describe their life goals—both what the researchers refer to as "intrinsic aspirations" (personal growth, intimacy, community) or "extrinsic aspirations" (money, image, fame)—before and after the presentations. In the fourth study, participants were asked to come to a lab that was either free of plants or was furnished with four plants. All four studies were performed at New York’s University of Rochester.
Results from all the studies showed that the participants exposed to nature—either via slide-show images or the presence of live plants in the lab setting—valued intrinsic goals more, and extrinsic goals less, than they had before spending time in the presence of nature. Why? The study authors speculate it’s because nature can remove individuals from their daily pressures, and help them tune into themselves in the moment.
WHAT IT MEANS: Nature nurtures the best in us. Despite their relatively brief contact with what even the authors admit were fairly weak simulations of natural environments, the study participants were moved to care more for others than they had before the exposure. “Our findings suggest that full contact with nature can have humanizing effects,” write the authors, who go on to say that actually living in more natural surroundings may inspire people to be more caring than they would otherwise be.
Here’s how to maximize your exposure to nature—without pulling a “Green Acres” and moving to Hooterville:
• Exercise outside. Not only will you boost your caring quotient by spending time in a park, on a running trail, or cycling some back roads, you’ll get greater health benefits. According to a 2003 Swedish study, people who run in parks feel 15 percent more restored than those who run on treadmills or through city streets. Reserve time for a walk or bicycle ride outdoors as often as you can.
• Use the backyard. Not an endurance athlete? Get outside anyway. Toss a ball or Frisbee around with the kids. Invite some friends over for a backyard yoga session or a game of two-hand touch football.
• Cancel the lawn service. Depending on where you live, there may not be much mowing left to do, but there are plenty of fall yard tasks to keep up with. And for extra exercise—and to test our your newly boosted caring attitude—you can offer to help elderly or busy neighbors clean up their lawns.
• Eat out. Not at a restaurant—outside. For most areas of the country, isn’t too late in the year to fire up the grill (or order a pizza) and enjoy the sunset over the neighbors’ trampoline.