Exposure to nature is linked to improved social health

Arbuthnott, C. D. (2023). Nature exposure and social health: Prosocial behavior, social cohesion, and effect pathways. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 90. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.102109

This review is based on the understanding that social health is as crucial to human flourishing as are physical and mental health. For the individual, social health can be defined “as the ability to form and maintain relationships as well as experiencing a sense of connection, acceptance, and belonging.” This review aimed to integrate different areas of research highlighting evidence that exposure to nature promotes social health.

Areas of research addressing the social health effects of nature exposure include environmental psychology, positive psychology, and epidemiology. The positive social health effects identified through this review include (1) an increase in prosocial behavior and social connection and (2) a decrease in antisocial behavior, such as crime and aggression. Both actual and virtual exposures to nature were considered; and both were linked to positive social health effects. The effect sizes, however, were larger for actual than virtual nature exposure. The positive effects of nature exposure on social health include both immediate and long-term outcomes. The immediate effects were found in altruistic decisions in economic and social dilemma games, helpfulness, and reduced aggression. Experimental studies support the idea that nature exposure caused these immediate positive effects; yet because almost all of the studies were conducted in western countries, assuming that the results apply to all groups of people is misguided. The effects of long-term exposure to nature on social health include increased community cohesion and decreased antisocial behavior. These long-term effects of nature exposure have been observed in many regions around the world.

In addition to identifying a number of social health effects of nature exposure, this review also identified several mechanisms (or pathways) for these effects. One such mechanism is the experience of self-transcendent emotions. A number of experimental studies support the idea that self-transcendence – often evoked by nature – promotes prosocial behavior and decisions, with the emotions of awe and appreciation for beauty being particularly important. Other mechanisms for the social health effects of nature exposure include motivation, social ties, place attachment, trust, and self-regulation. The evidence of positive associations of greenspace with social cohesion (judgements that one's social groups are helpful, friendly and can be trusted to provide help when needed) is consistent across different types of studies. The evidence of associations between greenspace and social ties (depth and frequency of social interactions), however, is inconsistent. Findings from this review show that children display fewer behavior and social problems when their homes are closer to gardens and public parks, including children diagnosed with ADHD.

This research indicates that exposure to nature can increase prosocial decisions and actions, decrease antisocial behaviors, and increase social cohesion. An awareness of these effects, along with possible mechanisms by which these effects occur, highlight opportunities for application in several areas, including health, business, urban planning, and education.

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