Nature Makes Us Good-Natured People

Candice Gaukel Andrews March 23, 2010 11
Yellowstone

Nature makes people treasure their relationships more. ©John T. Andrews.

You’ve probably read oodles of stories, articles, and personal anecdotes on the transformative powers of seeing Churchill’s polar bears. And being a flagship tour at Natural Habitat Adventures, you’ve most likely read a lot of them here, on the company’s website and in its columns.

My own first, real nature trip was a Natural Habitat Adventures group tour to see the polar bears of Churchill in 2002. At that time, I had never been out of the United States, much less traveled with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I was a bit anxious about going alone to a never-before-seen country with strangers. I had the usual worries: would I be the only one without a friend or family member along and therefore be a bit of an outcast; would people want to talk to me if they were there to experience the trip of a lifetime with a loved one; and being exceptionally quiet myself, could I even expect them to approach me — in short, would they be nice?

Nature Makes Us Nicer.

I really shouldn’t have worried. According to a new series of studies published last October in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, authored by University of Rochester researchers Netta Weinstein, Andrew K. Przybylski, and Richard M. Ryan, nature makes us nicer.

Grizzly Cub

Do I detect a smile on this grizzly cub? Could be his environment. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews.

In three different experiments, the researchers showed nearly 400 people slides of either natural landscapes — desert canyons, for example — or artificial settings, such as freeways. The study participants were told to look at each image for two minutes. They were encouraged to notice things like colors and textures and to imagine the sounds and smells associated with each environment depicted. Before-and-after questionnaires queried the respondents about the importance of four life-goals: (1) to have deep, enduring relationships, (2) to work toward the betterment of society, (3) to be financially successful, and (4) to be admired by many people. The results revealed that the more attention people paid to natural elements, the more they treasured close relationships and community (nos. 1 and 2). Conversely, the more they zeroed in on manmade components, the more selfish their goals became, valuing money and fame more (nos. 3 and 4).

In a fourth study, individuals were given $5 to keep or to pass along to another participant. Those who were immersed in nature slides were more likely to make generous decisions, while those who were shown the non-nature slides were greedier. In a separate test that did not involve nature images, people placed in a plant-filled, lab-type room reported a higher valuing of “intrinsic aspirations” than those put in the room devoid of plants.

Traveling Light.

Watching wolves in Yellowstone

You can’t imagine a nicer group of folks than nature travelers. ©John T. Andrews.

Many previous studies have touted the benefits of exposure to nature, from stress reduction to more rapid healing. A recent Dutch study, for instance, found that people who live within 0.6 miles of a wooded area or park experience less anxiety and depression, underlining the need for more green spaces in our cities. But this research appears to be the first to examine the impact of the natural world on people’s inclination to be “nice.”

If this study had been conducted eight years ago, I might not have worried so much about taking my first nature trip with a group of strangers. Those thirteen people — who unlike me were all seasoned travelers — took me in right from the get-go. And their enormous senses of humor made me feel right at home from day one. In fact, we got along so well, that eight years and six trips later, we’re still traveling together into the natural world. And the best thing is, sometimes the smallest event can set us all off laughing — loudly. It starts with one smile, which then travels through the group gathering speed and mass, ending in uproarious merriment.

You can’t imagine a nicer group of folks.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

11 Comments »

  1. NineQuietLessons March 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    I’ve noticed this effect myself from time to time. I wonder if it has something to do with us humans feeling more at ease the closer we are to the environment we evolved in?

  2. Kit Nordeen March 23, 2010 at 5:12 pm - Reply

    I must agree with you, Candy. I think that experiences in nature, especially those that bring us closer to and animals and environments, make us more aware of ourselves and help us to relate with others. The experiences with you, Candy, and our group will always be some of the highlights of my life!

    Kit Nordeen

  3. Art Hardy March 24, 2010 at 2:51 pm - Reply

    Makes sense that being out of your normal environment, having new experiences you’re generally in a good mood and will have a tendency to play nice with others.

  4. Muriel March 25, 2010 at 7:28 am - Reply

    After meeting many, many travelers, I think often it’s “a person’s nature” that makes nature so lovely!

    I have run into people who are in some of the most remarkable places on this earth and they see nothing wonderful, amazing, beautiful, tranquil, or awesome about their surroundings.

  5. Pat Marron March 27, 2010 at 7:52 am - Reply

    I think that being out and observing nature helps us to relax. We are removed from the things that might add stress to our days (like cell phones and computers) and have time to let our minds run free. The quiet, the beauty, and being with like-minded people all make for a “nice” time.

  6. Jack March 29, 2010 at 10:36 am - Reply

    Possibly just well-oxygenated people.

  7. Travis March 29, 2010 at 10:38 am - Reply

    Living where I live, I often stare at freeways. However, I’m not feeling financially successful when doing so.

  8. John Howard Gaukel March 31, 2010 at 10:06 am - Reply

    I agree!! When a group of people are out in nature viewing the flora and fauna together, they seem to form a common bond. One that makes them kinder and more friendly toward one another. When we are absorbed in the wonderment of nature and can forget the stress put opon use in are everyday lives, we become aware that we are all connected to nature and one another.

  9. Mary April 5, 2010 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    Oh, yes, being free from the stresses of daily life in gorgeous and inspiring settings allows us to refocus on our priorities.

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