Should changing your environment be your New Year’s resolution?

I finished teaching last week Environmental psychology class. At the end of the course, I asked the students to share the biggest thing they took away from the course.

A common response was to realize how important the environment is and how little most of us think about changing the environment to promote our well-being. Being a researcher in this field, this is something I see a lot.

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As 2023 draws to a close and we all think about our New Year’s resolutions for 2024, it might be worth taking a moment to carefully assess our environment and consider how changing our environment might be a more worthwhile goal than we think.

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In class we talked about exploring the myriad benefits of a non-threatening natural environment. (The threat here is notable because, to quote a common question asked in seminars and speeches I have given, bears are not restorative.) I could spend an entire semester talking about the direct benefits of spending time in nature—enhanced cognitionemotional states, helping behaviorpro-environmental behavior, reduced aggressionand crimeimproved physical health, improved mental health, increased connection with others and the physical environment, less rumination, more thoughts about others, the list goes on and on.

yet, on average, we don’t spend much time in nature. Americans spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors! From this, it seems reasonable to assume that we might underestimate the influence of time in nature on our well-being. In fact, some studies have shown exactly that (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011). However, this is not the whole story.

Based on an analysis of some data that a colleague and I collected a few years ago, it seems that on average people have intuition that nature is useful to them in one way or another. The fact that we prefer natural environments over urban ones, and that this preference directly affects our mood (Meidenbauer et al., 2020), is further proof that we are not completely ignorant.

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It may also be that individual differences are important. Based on the results of a class survey, my environmental psychology students demonstrated a higher level of feeling connected to nature than the average American. They also did a mini-replication of Nisbet and Zelenski (2011) and unlike that work, these students were fairly well calibrated about the emotional benefits they would get from a nature walk. This is consistent with the idea that people with a stronger connection to nature are more likely to seek interactions with nature and, as a consequence, may be more familiar with the benefits it brings.

From this it can be argued that we seem to understand that our environment is somewhat important and that exposure to nature would be good for us (and some of us are more likely to understand this than others). Moreover, we usually don’t prioritize changing our immediate surroundings by adding plants or taking walks through natural spaces. And we definitely don’t often go for a walk in the park without a smartphone.

Based on recent research and my own experience as an instructor talking to students about these issues, I currently see two main obstacles. It is significant that for some there is minimal access to nature because of where they live, whether it is difficulties in getting to natural spaces or weather conditions that make going outside more of a challenge.

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However, many of us have access to nature and do not take advantage of it. I would argue (and several fellow scientists agree) that even if we have some vague idea that it is good for us, the appeal of other means of recreation and leisure, such as endless entertainment devices and media, is extremely difficult to overcome.

So what should we do? Well, first, don’t blame yourself for not considering your surroundings more. We live in a world where we are increasingly disconnected from the natural world and connected to our devices. But can you think of ways to bring more nature, more objects that bring you joy (like art or photographs), into your home or work environment? For starters, could you try spending some time in a natural space (ideally, phone-free) at least once a week and see if you develop a better sense of how it affects you?

Essential reading about the environment

I think the fundamental realization we’re missing is that even small changes in our environment or modest exposure to restorative environments can affect us, and we don’t need a retreat into the wild to calm down and clear our heads. Furthermore, these experiences are likely to build over time, with more awareness of the ways our environment affects us, and increased investment of time in our well-being through restorative environments, we can move towards a healthier, happier version of ourselves. Small change and a pretty good resolution for 2024.

References

Nisbet EK, Zelenski JM. Underestimating nearby nature: Affective prediction errors blur the happy path to sustainability. Psychol Sci. 2011;22:1101-1106.

Meidenbauer KL, Stenfors CUD, Bratman GN, Gross JJ, Schertz KE, Choe KW, et al. Affective benefits of exposure to nature: what does nature have to do with it? J Environ Psychol. 2020;72:101498.

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