Hugging Trees for Health And Humanity

Science keeps affirming what nature-lovers already know: regular exposure to the living, green environment makes people happier, healthier and better citizens of Planet Earth.

by Hannah Moore

March 30, 2015—Take a hike for fresh air, a break from the daily grind become more cooperative? While people typically spend time in nature for fun, recent studies suggest that it can also influence your propensity to cooperate with others.

Researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa tested the idea that being in nature makes people more inclined to make sustainable choices in life. The participants in the series of experiments, conducted by psychologist John M. Zelenski and colleagues, were college undergraduates. They were first asked to watch 12 minutes of video. Some videos were nature documentaries, others about architecture. Then the participants were asked to play a game that involved decision-making about how many fish to catch during a certain number of seasons.

The experiment, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and described in the Washington Post, revealed that participants who watched the nature video harvested fewer fish than participants who watched architecture video. Also, participants who did not watch the nature video were more likely to harvest more fish earlier on, and much more likely to "crash" their simulated fisheries through overfishing.

In another experiment, participants were asked to watch both pleasant and unpleasant footage of nature or architecture. Even with this change, the nature videos tended to encourage more cooperative behavior during the fishing game. This suggests that the participant’s cooperative behavior did not depend on nature looking good to the eye.

That's good news for nature lovers, who can add this study to several others in the last few years noting the mentally refreshing effects of being in nature.

In February, researchers found that taking a stroll through the woods has calming, balancing effects by encouraging electrochemical shifts in the human brain. The results of the research showed that when someone walked through natural areas, frustration levels decreased and relaxation levels increased, as shown by brain-wave activity.

Similarly, a 2014 study by University of Michigan researchers shows a correlation between group walks in nature and certain health benefits, including decrease of depression and in perceived stress. Read about it in Huffington Post.

And getting really up close and personal with nature—like digging in the dirt—carries a wealth of benefits too. According to a recent study in the Netherlands, gardening very effectively counteracts stress. Humans become easily burned out by the multitasking required by cell phones, email. etc. Stress and irritation often follow close behind. Gardening can help reduce this stress because the attention it requires—concentrating on natural elements and the calming tasks of gardening—is effortless.

A study from Norway had participants who were diagnosed with depression, low mood and bipolar disorders grow flowers and vegetables for six hours per week. The results after three months: half of the participants had a measurable decrease in depression and improvement in mood.

Two different studies also showed that the physical and mental aspects of gardening can be mood-boosting. The studies followed people in their 60s and 70s for 16 years. The results showed that those who gardened had 36% and 47% lower risk of dementia than those who did not garden. Read about the health benefits of gardening on CNN.