A new study of Puget Sound-area residents has found that engagement with nature can be linked to overall happiness — for middle-class people, anyway.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that along with the long-known roles that health, economic status and social relationships play in life satisfaction, Pacific Northwesterners’ interactions with the natural environment have a direct, if more subtle, relationship to their reported happiness.
“What we really wanted to know was, ‘Is it possible that engaging with the natural environment is a significant predictor of people’s happiness?’ ” said Kelly Biedenweg, lead author of the study.
“If we can prove that, there is even more support for why we ought to be involved with environmental management beyond the health aspects.”
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The study, which drew on 4,418 responses to an online survey, was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency through a grant to the Puget Sound Institute at the University of Washington Tacoma, where Biedenweg worked as lead social scientist. She is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University and spends her summers on Vashon Island.
The full study is available on Biedenweg’s website. She said not much research exists for other parts of the country measuring how people draw happiness from their natural environment.
“We (in the Pacific Northwest) are pretty much the leaders in trying to understand how happiness and integration with the environment relate to each other,” she said.
The study’s analysis across 11 Puget Sound counties found there was not as much difference in responses by county as there was in whether a response came from a rural resident versus a city dweller or suburbanite.
Rural areas showed the greatest relationship with environmental interaction — hiking, farming, recreation and conservation work included — and suburban ones the least.
The connection between nature and happiness showed up mainly in households with annual incomes between $75,000 and $150,000, the study found.
Also among its findings: People whose interactions with nature affect their happiness also reported this extends to their sense that government decisions on the environment are being handled responsibly.
“We kind of had a sense that that would be the case when we though about the politics that were happening today,” Biedenweg said.
She said that although the quality of social relationships plays a more direct role in making people happy, the Puget Sound region’s outdoor social culture has intertwined an appreciation of the natural world with that.
In other words, the mild weather — if you can tolerate a little rain — and range of available outdoor activities from mountain hiking to ocean kayaking help build bonds in which a love of nature is a key factor.
“We know that the people who move here from afar tend to move here with the expectation of being able to participate in this natural environment and are people who appreciate it,” she said.