To Touch and to Smell – a Nature Experience that Creates Happiness

February 2, 2021

A study by three Technion researchers has revealed that simply spending time in nature isn’t enough: to be happy, we need to get really close to it, to touch it and smell it. And surprise: there’s no need to turn off your phone

During the first COVID-19-related lockdown, everyone baked sourdough bread. In the second lockdown, the trend was home gardening, and social media was flooded with a plethora of photos of pot plants and close-ups of colorful succulents. According to researchers, the change in trend can be explained by the fact that the second lockdown found Israelis in lower spirits that even carbs would find it hard to lift. The forced stay that kept entire families indoors turned even the brightest, most beautiful homes into traps that created a sense of being closed in, and their residents tried to mitigate its impacts with a little greenery on which they could feast their eyes and spirits.

Numerous research studies have supported this intuitive choice, demonstrating the importance of nature and green spaces to people’s emotional and physical wellbeing, but a new study has shown that “feasting one’s eyes on greenery” is merely the tip of the iceberg. In order to benefit emotional wellbeing, humans must get close up and physically touch natural elements. In a research study published in Conservation Biology, Technion researchers found that interaction with nature alone is not enough. In order for tangible benefits to be derived, they found it is important that planners design green spaces that positive and close interaction with nature. The effect of interaction of this kind occurs in two stages, In the first, “cues of close psychological distance,” such as smelling and touching natural elements, increase the state of nature relatedness. This state in turn intensifies the pleasure derived by participants.

The researchers, Professor Assaf Shwartz and Dr. Agathe Colléony of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, and Dr. Liat Levontin of the William Davidson Faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, explain that closeness to nature improves wellbeing more than passive exposure or simply looking at the green landscape. Based on a survey of 1,023 visitors at Israel’s Ramat Hanadiv Nature Park, they found that the closer the interaction with nature (for example, interaction that included touching natural elements or smelling flowers), the more the positive affect of visitors was enhanced following the visit to the nature reserve, compared to other visitors who experienced nature from a greater distance (for example, by simply taking a walk).

“Our research has shown that people who have an emotional affinity for nature are generally happier and derive greater benefit from visits to green spaces or nature reserves,” explained Prof. Shwartz.

Following these findings, the researchers conducted an experiment among 303 Technion students. All participants spent half an hour outdoors on campus, with each assigned one of nine different cues-to-experience to perform while walking. These included smelling flowers, taking photographs of nature, touching natural elements, or turning off their phones. The findings showed that participants assigned cues of close psychological distance from nature (smelling and touching natural elements) indeed felt closer to nature and felt better after the walk than the control group (with no cues). Contrary to the prevailing opinion that it is important to experience nature undisturbed, participants who were asked to turn off their phones during the walk interacted less with nature, and reported both an increase in their negative feelings and a decrease in positive feelings after the walk was recorded. According to Dr. Levontin, “Turning off the phone may possibly cause people to think about it more and lead to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and does not enable significant interaction with nature.”

“People today are increasingly alienated from nature, and this has negative implications on their health and wellbeing and on the importance they attribute to the world of nature,” said Prof. Shwartz. “It’s important to plan green spaces that enable significant interactions with nature to improve our affinity to nature and emotional wellbeing.”

“I think we all felt it in the recent lockdowns,” added Dr. Levontin. “But it’s possible that as a result of our growing alienation from nature, planning green spaces is not enough to create a significant nature experience and contribute to quality of life. So thought must be given to how to encourage people to go outdoors and enhance their nature experience.”

“This is precisely where our research comes in,” Prof. Shwartz explained. “In the experiment, we demonstrated that with the help of minor cues, which we called “cues-to-experience,” people can be brought closer to nature. We also found that it is possible to enhance the nature experience among visitors, as well as its positive effect after the visit. Even smartphones can be used to create meaningful nature experiences for all of us in parks, gardens, and nature reserves. At the same time, it is important to make sure to also protect biodiversity and not to encourage interaction that is liable to be harmful to nature, such as picking flowers. Landscape architects and environmental planners need to think about solutions that will encourage the creation of interactions with nature, whose negative impact on biodiversity is minimal and positive impact is strong.”

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