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Psychology: Natural High
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Natural High
A little exposure to nature can make us nicer.

The city’s mean streets might be a whole lot nicer if they were lined with trees. In a new study, researchers compared the effect of natural and unnatural environments, and discovered that nature can actually make people more caring.

In three separate studies, University of Rochester psychologists exposed subjects to images of either natural landscapes, such as desert canyons, or artificial settings, like freeways, and encouraged them to notice colors and textures, and to imagine sounds and smells. Before-and-after questionnaires revealed that the more attention participants paid to natural elements, the more socially connected they felt. Conversely, the more they zeroed in on manmade elements, the more selfish their goals became. “We were surprised at how strong the correlation was,” says Richard Ryan, one of the psychologists. “People immersed in natural settings valued community and close relationships more. People exposed to human artifacts valued money and fame more.”

In a fourth study participants filled out surveys in a lab room with or without plants, then were asked whether they would be willing to share money with others. In keeping with the other results, immersion in the plant-filled room enhanced generosity, while sitting in a plant-free room inhibited it.

The key, as the old saying goes, is to stop and smell the roses. For technophiles, that means leaving the iPod at home from time to time. “If you’re in your head not paying attention to natural elements around you, it’s not going to have much of an effect,” Ryan says.

The findings add to a growing body of evidence of nature’s positive effects. A recent Dutch study, for instance, found that people who live within 0.6 miles of a park or wooded area experience less anxiety and depression. “It can be hard to make an argument for parks or green space,” says Ryan. “These studies show nature’s value.”

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Recipe for Kindness
A recent study provides evidence for what many of us might have assumed: A dose of nature can make us more caring.