The Paradox of Nature and Human Nature?

Nature restores human nature, yet human nature underestimates the value of nature. This tendency precludes our ability to take advantage of nature’s restorative power while leading to nature’s destruction.

This is one of my favorite academic articles ever. When I first read it, my immediate feeling was: “Holy @$%&! This validates the entire purpose of what I aim to achieve through 77Zero!” I know, I know… Confirmation bias much? In this case yes, but most people don’t need science to tell them that toiling indoors for a paycheck with which to purchase an endless supply of boredom isn’t the pinnacle of humanity. As soon as I say that, someone inevitably raises their hand saying, “but… but… but… I love my job.” That may be true, but I doubt it.

Modern lifestyles disconnect people from nature, and this may have adverse consequences for the well-being of both humans and the environment. In two experiments, we found that although outdoor walks in nearby nature made participants much happier than indoor walks did, participants made affective forecasting errors, such that they systematically underestimated nature’s hedonic benefit. The pleasant moods experienced on outdoor nature walks facilitated a subjective sense of connection with nature, a construct strongly linked with concern for the environment and environmentally sustainable behavior. To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximize their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature. Our findings suggest a happy path to sustainability, whereby contact with nature fosters individual happiness and environmentally responsible behavior. (Nisbet & Zelenski. 2011)

It’s sometimes mystifying to people who spend significant time in nature that so many others seem content to revel in the apparent malaise of the self-imposed human zoo. At the same time, we’ve also felt that moment of vibrating elation that forces us to smile in the wilderness — despite being the only people for miles. If a smile falls in the forest… Many of those moments occur after mornings when cozying up with someone warm in bed until the sun goes back down, or dissolving to dozen successive cups of coffee and a novel, seemed like a good idea. On those days… in those stay or go moments… we’re inclined to stay. It seems that our minds are perfectly content to choose the comfort of shelter and an exquisitely prepared meal. But it turns out, as many of us know, that these nesting instincts are a mirage. Humans are wild creatures — animals that thrive in an environment that provides more sensory input than human zookeepers architects can reproduce. The impulse to choose safety over sensation is a mirage.

Previous Findings

  • People habitually neglect the natural environment, yet contact with nature has considerable benefits
  • Contact with nature can: restore attentional resources
  • Contact with nature can: improve concentration in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Contact with nature can: speed recovery from illness, and reduce stress
  • Contact with nature may: reduce mortality risk
  • Subjective connection with nature: predicts environmentally sustainable behaviors, such as walking or cycling to conserve gas, signing a recycling petition, and self-identifying as an environmentalist

New Findings

  • When thinking about future events, people underestimate the positive benefit of being in nature to their own well-being
  • When thinking about future events, people overestimate the positive benefit of physical activity indoors
I think this study is important for a number of reasons. Not least of these is the ability to understand the motivations, or lack thereof, of others who think of nature with a chauvinistic, cavalier, or irreverent veneer. This study shows that this tendency indeed is a superficial misunderstanding of the human condition. Indeed, our fatally flawed inability to even predict what makes ourselves happy. Our imaginations are no substitute for the viscerality available to us.

“people who are more related to nature spend more time in nature and experience more happiness, and these effects seem to promote environmentally sustainable attitudes and behavior.” (ibid.)

The tendency to underestimate nature is a cognitive trap that we’re all bound to fall into. Recognizing this flaw in our own thinking is helpful, and I hope it may also help us to relate to others who haven’t yet crossed the threshold from thinking about nature to letting nature infuse our minds. Understanding this paradox is a clue to getting people to feel instead of imagine.

Go outside and play. Science has proven that you’ll like it more than you think.

Nisbet, E. K., & Zelenski, J. M. (2011). Underestimating Nearby Nature: Affective Forecasting Errors Obscure the Happy Path to Sustainability. Psychological Science, (August). doi:10.1177/0956797611418527


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