Can Naturalistic Landscapes Make Us Happy?
My son sent me a link to an interesting post by Chicago Magazine’s Whet Moser. The post deals with some current research on identifying the elements that make a park look more “natural” to most people.
It was more the purpose than the results of this particular research that interested me. I’m not sure that anyone would be surprised by the qualities found to be more natural-looking – curved rather than straight edges, for example.
Marc Berman, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has stated that his research could help in designing “new environments in ways that may improve psychological functioning.”
In other words, this is a new spin on the idea that exposure to nature (or something we think looks like nature) provides uplift to those who live in man-made environments.
Berman has done some research in the use of nature walks as part of a course of treatments for clinical depression. He theorizes that natural environments provide a tranquil counterpoint to the overstimulation of man-made environments, and that this can create a sense of calm and well-being.
Or, as Berman puts it:”… interacting with natural environments can have a salubrious effect on cognitive and affective processing compared to interacting with more urban/man-made environments.”
My own experience in the garden tells me there is something real behind this. Contemplating a single plant, a border, or a garden overall provides a tranquil focus for the mind and quiets worrying or distressing thoughts. Watching bees on flowers has for me the sort of hypnotic effect that some who practice meditation get from concentrating on their own breathing.
There was also a study by Frances Kuo at the University of Illinois which found that green spaces in the inner city tend to reduce crime. This runs counter to the conventional view that bushes and trees provide hiding spaces for criminals and criminal acts.
Do naturalistic gardens have this effect more than formal gardens? Perhaps. As Jens Jensen, founder of the Prairie Style of design, once said: “Straight lines spell autocracy …”. Both formal and informal gardens are designed landscapes, but the formal garden suggests control, tension, discipline. The informal garden, by definition, is more relaxed.
Jens Jensen may not have been familiar with “affective processing”, but he did say of naturalistic landscapes: “They appeal to the finer feelings of mankind and elevate the depressed in soul and mind to a higher place in the human family.”
Do you agree? Do natural-seeming landscapes in urban environments make us happier?