Happiness and nature

Happiness and nature

Science of happiness leads researchers back to nature

Joanne Laucius, Canwest News Service

Published: Friday, May 02, 2008

Happiness takes on a whole new meaning when it comes to Ottawa psychology researcher John Zelenski.

Zelenski, the head of Carleton University’s “happiness lab,” is just starting to get comfortable with happiness. Not the mental state, but the word itself used to describe his line of scientific inquiry, a field of study that has gathered steam in the past decade.

Recently, that inquiry had led Zelenski to ask how nature makes us happy. And whether the human happiness generated by admiring a sunset or walking through the woods can help save the planet.

“Happiness is not a fish you can catch,” according to Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace.

Scientists beg to differ. Sure, catching the fish of happiness isn’t easy, but what we learn about the human condition of happiness can affect how we choose to chase it.

There are also policy implications.

For example, should nations create a quantifiable “happiness indicator” to be used next to economic indicators as a way to track to progress? Should governments offer incentives to work less if it makes workers happier?

Rates of depression have increased substantially over the past generation and depression is poised to become the next big epidemic.

Just this week, the Canadian Mental Health Association urged employers to take more responsibility for the mental health of employees, citing a Conference Board of Canada figure that found workers who reported a high degree of stress balancing work and family life missed 7.2 days of work each year -, double the absentee rate of their less-stressed fellows.

Zelenski’s nature research led him to look at the symbiotic relationship between nature and human happiness.

People connected to nature are happy. People who are happy live lives of ecologically friendly “voluntary simplicity.” It’s an endless cycle.

At the same time, people are more motivated to change their behaviour because of a desire to explore and learn than because a municipality or the federal government mandates them to live eco-friendly lives. Being environmentally responsible doesn’t have to be about sacrifice and deprivation because happiness can motivate people to change, says Zelenski.

To explore that, Zelenski’s team developed a questionnaire called a “nature-relatedness” tool and recruited hundreds of undergraduates and 145 executives from the federal government and the private sector to determine how their scores in nature-relatedness compared with their happiness.

Here’s what they found so far:

. People who felt connected to nature also had a sense of purpose in life and more self- acceptance. Both contribute to happiness.

. Nature-related people spend more time outdoors. This wasn’t a surprise. But nature-related people were also more agreeable, open to experience and conscientious. They were also more extroverted, but this may mean they are more likely to be thrill-seekers, and not necessarily more sociable.

. Taking a course in biology or geography may help make you happy.

The Carleton researchers followed two subgroups of students within a large group of 170 undergraduates. Of these, 94 had enrolled in nature-related courses such as environmental science, earth science or natural history.

The other 76 students, who were not taking a nature-related course, were the control group.

The students in the environmental courses were both more nature-related and happy. Analysis suggested that changes in nature-relatedness over the course of the term accounted for improved happiness over time.

Meanwhile, the control group declined significantly in nature-relatedness as the term wore on from fall to winter. Perhaps even non-nature lovers are susceptible to lack of contact with the outdoors over the winter.

. Those who identified themselves as environmentalists and ardent vegetarians fared about the same on the nature-relatedness scale as people who enjoyed hunting and fishing. The two groups come to nature from different angles and perhaps even have polar opposite political views, but enjoyment of nature made them happier in both cases, says Zelenski.

“They’re certainly different, but the environment is the source of happiness.”

So do people love nature because they are happy, or are they happy because they love nature?

“At this point in our research, both causes seem possible. And both could be true,” says Zelenski.

Ottawa Citizen