There is something about nature documentaries that captivates us — whether it’s learning about the way the Flamboyant Cuttlefish masks its movements across the sea floor, or the courtly, spinning mating dance of the bird of paradise, we see metaphors for our own behavior in that of wild animals.
And it’s not in my head. BBC Earth found that watching nature documentaries, even through a laptop or TV screen, makes us happier.
Nature documentaries are the secret to chill
Researchers had 7500 participants from the U.S., U.K., Singapore, India, South Africa and Australia look at various video clips, including a nature documentary, a news clip, and funny footage. The “Planet Earth II” clips had a direct positive impact on participants’ mood.
Watching virtual nature increased participants’ amazement, wonder, curiosity, and interest and decreased their nervousness, anxiety and fear. Although everyone was happy to see the Earth in all its glory, the positive effect was 35% greater in women than amongst men.
Generational differences had an impact too: participants aged 16-24 reported stronger positive feelings than older participants.
Seeing and being in the outdoors makes us happy
University of California, Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner, who oversaw the study, explained why these positive emotions mattered: “We know that wonder and contentment are the foundations of human happiness. If people experience feelings of awe, they are more likely to display empathetic and charitable behaviours and have been shown to be better able to handle stress.”
O! The joy!
The BBC Earth study shows us that you don’t need to have ready access to nature to experience its positive effects. Seeing it in any form is enough to provoke joy. Look no further than what explorer William Clark wrote in his journal when he thought he saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time in 1805: “Ocian in view! O! the joy.”
Clark’s joy at seeing something that wasn’t going to food-poison him on his hellish expedition goes along with E.O. Wilson’s ‘Biophilia’ hypothesis.
Wilson finds that we are biologically predisposed to love nature. The BBC Earth researchers cited Wilson, noting that nature can “produce emotions, thought patterns, and actions that lead people to find resource rich natural environments that provide optimal food, shelter, and comfort.”
One theory: Looking at nature reminds us of our hunter-gatherer pasts when it was our only source of survival.
Greenery lowers stress hormones at work
Being close to greenery also has mental health benefits. Analyzing 10,000 city dwellers, a study found that regardless of people’s income, education, or employment, people who lived closer to green space reported less mental distress. In Japan, professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki found that people who looked at forests for 20 minutes had their stress hormones decrease by 13.4% compared to people in urban areas.
Miyazaki calls walking through dense green spaces “forest bathing,” and his findings have influenced Japan’s government, which has created several forest therapy centers.
If you can’t access a forest, bring a forest to you.
U.K researchers found that offices with houseplants had more productive employees. With just a few houseplants within an employee’s eyesight, they would become 15% more productive than workers in minimalist offices.
One of the study’s researchers, Dr. Chris Knight, said that “if you are working in an environment where there’s something to get you psychologically engaged, you are happier and you work better.” If you have a green thumb, consider getting a succulent to keep you company at your desk.
Whether you’re ocean gazing or forest bathing, these studies all confirm that being reminded of living breathing things that exist beyond your cubicle is healthy for you.