“If it weren’t for Central Park, all us New Yorkers would kill each other,” says Ruta Fox, a 50-something jewelry entrepreneur from Manhattan. “It’s the saving grace of this city.”
As extreme as that sounds, Fox may be on to something. In a set of recent experiments, researchers at the University of Rochester in New York monitored the effects of natural versus artificial environments — and found that nature actually makes us nicer.
“Previous studies have shown the health benefits of nature range from more rapid healing to stress reduction to improved mental performance and vitality,” says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology, psychiatry and education at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
“Now we’ve found nature brings out more social feelings, more value for community and close relationships. People are more caring when they’re around nature,” he says.
Fox, who lives three blocks from Central Park, says she’s definitely noticed the effect the 843 acres of woodlands, water bodies and rolling lawns has on the city’s overcrowded, overworked inhabitants.
“People in the park are happier,” she says. “They’re playing with their kids, running with their dogs, having picnics with their girlfriends or boyfriends. Their attitudes are better than in most circumstances of interaction in the city. It’s friendlier.”
The fall of friendliness?
Will all this change as fall and winter descend and we begin to spend more time indoors?
Not necessarily, say researchers, who point out the “naturally nice” effect doesn’t so much hinge on daily hikes through the woods as it does paying attention to the natural elements we encounter each day.
“It’s about stopping and smelling the roses as opposed to passing them by while thinking of your next meeting,” Ryan says.
Nature’s psychological power is so profound, in fact, that even paying attention to a painting of roses or a potted fern can make a difference in a person’s attitude. In three of the experiments, people were shown images on a 19-inch computer screen, with half viewing buildings, roads and cityscapes and the other half viewing landscapes, lakes and deserts.
In a fourth study, participants worked in a room with or without a few houseplants. In all cases, those who were exposed to natural elements — digital or otherwise — rated close relationships and community as more important than they had before the study.
The more attention participants paid to natural elements, the “nicer” they got. Conversely, the more they focused on artificial elements, the higher they rated selfish goals, such as wealth and fame.
“There was a change toward the social direction for people who were around plants and a movement away from that for people who didn’t have plants,” Ryan explains. “Human artifacts like city scenes led people to be less social. And being in the room with no natural elements had the same effect.”
Ryan says he hopes his research, which involved 370 participants, will make a difference when it comes to city planning, health care settings and work place environments.
“There’s a real value to having green space,” he says. “It serves the community.”
Planting social seeds
A.J. Dax, a 43-year-old green lifestyle consultant from Los Angeles says she tries to sneak as much nature into her daily life as possible, from spending time in her garden to using floral or wildlife-themed work accessories to keeping a workspace that overlooks a bird feeder and fountain.
“I can’t stand parking garages and if you get me in traffic, I’m one of the grumpiest, most impatient people you’ll ever hope to meet. But put me in a park and I’m a pussycat,” she says.
Zaccai Free, a 37-year-old publisher from Washington, D.C., says he too notices a difference in his outlook when he’s trapped in the city too long.
“Too much time in concrete and my enthusiasm depletes, my mood becomes rude and my attitude is as hard as the streets,” he says.
To counteract this, Free does community gardening, goes for frequent walks through D.C.’s Rock Creek Park, and uses a screensaver featuring digital shots of trees and river and creeks.
The publisher, who spent five years in the rain forests of Central America, says he’s also seen a distinct difference between those who live in the city and those who don't.
“In Belize, people were much more community and family-oriented,” he says. “More open to sharing, not only material things, but their time. Here, so much of our time is spent trying to get some kind of deal. There’s always a motive, an agenda, in big cities.”
Sharing the green
Interestingly enough, Free’s observations are backed by Ryan’s research, which found that nature not only makes us more social, it makes us more generous.
“In two of the studies, we gave people the opportunity to share money with another person and they were more generous when they were in a context where there were natural elements,” he says. “If I had a nonprofit, when the donors came in, I’d want them in a room with natural elements.”
Dax, who says her family often teases her about moving into a tree house one day, says she’s not at all surprised to learn that the presence of nature — or lack thereof — can impact human beings’ feelings of connection and social responsibility.
“If you look at Wall Street, that makes a lot of sense,” she says. “They’re all walled up in those high-rises. Maybe they need to spend more time in Central Park.”