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Your Happiness Could Depend on the Time You Spend Outdoors

July 12, 2016

Trent Psychology Prof examines link between human well-being and environmental health with our connection to nature

Lisa Nisbet standing with her dog next to a canoe on sunny summer afternoon

"Spending time in nature is good for your health and can make you happier," says Dr. Lisa Nisbet, assistant professor of Psychology at Trent University. Professor Nisbet studies how people's sense of connection to nature influences their physical and mental health as well as their sustainable behaviour.

"Our research shows that connection with nature is associated with greater well-being," Prof. Nisbet explains. “The more somebody feels a connection with the natural world, the more that person will report having a greater sense of happiness - more positive (and fewer negative) emotions, a greater sense of vitality, as well as more satisfaction with life."

At the core of Prof. Nisbet's research is a concept she developed called "nature relatedness," a self-report measure which captures individual differences in our relationship to the natural world, including cognitive aspects such as beliefs and a sense of identity, along with emotions, attitudes, and experiences in nature.

Much of her work involves lab studies conducted with the help of Trent undergrad and graduate students.

"My students study how people vary in their connection to nature, how they respond to environmental stimuli, and how that may influence their mood or behaviour," Prof. Nisbet says.

"For example, one of my honours undergrad students recently examined how viewing wildlife in degraded environments inspires more environmental concern than wildlife depicted in unspoiled environments. Another student studied the links between older adults' sense of connection to nature, perceived health, and the amount of tree canopy in their Peterborough neighbourhood."

Her research also extends to community organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation, where she assessed the effects of the annual 30 x 30 Nature Challenge, encouraging people to spend 30 minutes a day in nature for 30 days. "This August, we will be looking at how contact with the natural world influences people's well-being and whether we see associated increases in happiness, as part of the Ontario Parks Health Parks Healthy People 30x30 challenge," she says.

Prof. Nisbet says that a problem that needs to be addressed in Canada is that we don't get outdoors as much as we should – we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors, and we tend to underestimate the health benefits of even a short walk in nature.

"We need to make people aware that spending time in nature is good for us, but also a happiness booster," she says. "And we need to think about how we design our communities and our cities to make nature more accessible for people. If we can incorporate more nature contact into our daily routine and make it a habit, then we're likely to reap the well-being benefits, both physically and mentally."

Prof. Nisbet points out that Trent University is ideally suited for this type of research, citing its breathtaking natural surroundings, active outdoor community, and research on environmental heath.

"Trent is a leader in environmental research, so I believe I'm adding an important piece to the puzzle, in understanding not only how the environment affects human health but also how the psychological aspects of our relationship with the natural world influence how we treat the planet," she says.