Can a Connection to Nature Enhance Your Ethics?

By Brett Beasley

A connection to nature doesn't just calm your nerves. It cultivates your character as well.

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In March of 2020, as the COVID-19 global pandemic sent US cities into lockdown, Wellington was one of the few residents of Chicago allowed to venture out from his home on a field trip. That's because Wellington is a small Rockhopper Penguin who lives at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. With exhibits empty and the aquarium's cavernous halls quiet, Wellington was invited to waddle out of his enclosure and see the sights, meeting Sea Otters, Beluga Whales, and many other animals for the first time.

The videos of Wellington went viral online in the early weeks of lockdown. And they are just one instance in a larger phenomenon. To cope with the pandemic, people began looking to reminders of the natural world for inspiration and solace. Millions shared their own photos and videos of animals emerging onto deserted streets with the hashtag #NatureIsHealing. Others invited nature into their homes directly: Pet adoptions soared, with some shelters running low on available dogs for the first time in their history. Others converted their windowsills or spare corners of their yards into makeshift food plots, launching what some horticulturalists have already called a new "golden age" of gardening.

A Connection to Nature Helps Us Cope

Research would suggest that these new habits and practices weren't just a distraction. They really did make a difference in helping us cope with the pandemic.

Take, for example, a 2014 UC Berkeley study entitled "Awe in Nature Heals." The study documented cases in which immersion in nature provided powerful relief from worry and trauma. The study's authors arranged for military veterans and at-risk youth to go whitewater rafting. They discovered that the experience could provide the veterans and youth with a much-needed dose of awe. Those who had this experience still showed improvements in wellbeing and stress levels a week after it was over. Similarly, the researchers found that daily experiences of awe in nature helped college students find greater satisfaction with their lives and enhanced overall wellbeing.

Why does nature have this healing effect? Researchers say that awe, the active ingredient in these experiences with nature, helps us by placing our concerns within a larger context. One study showed that simply watching five minutes of the documentary series Planet Earth led participants to gain perspective and see their selves and their concerns as  just a small part of a larger whole.

A Connection to Nature Builds Character

"In the woods [...] I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes."
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in Bai et al. (2021)

If these connections with the natural world stick, they can do much more than help us cope with the impacts of COVID-19. They can also help us build a better, kinder society than we had before the pandemic began. That is because the same experiences in nature have also been shown to promote ethical decision-making while also encouraging generosity, trust, and other "prosocial" behaviors.

Some of the ethics-related benefits of immersion in nature come from the very fact that it calms us, provides perspective, and expands our sense of time. Research shows that ethical decisions take time, and the experience of anxiety and stress tend to introduce ethics risks. Immersion in nature makes us feel that time is more plentiful, and this perception led participants in one study to increase their desire to spend time helping others.

In addition, experiences with nature promote ethical behavior by diminishing our sense of self-importance. Researchers have been able to demonstrate this phenomenon in innovative ways. One study found that connecting to nature caused participants to draw smaller images of their selves and even to write the word "me" in smaller letters, compared to people who had not experienced a connection with nature.

In their recent study of awe and its effects, Yang Bai and his colleagues suggest that research has proven Emerson correct: Nature can heal us after a crisis, and it can also help us overcome our selfishness, or what Emerson calls our "mean egotism." One of the most in-depth studies of the ethical effects of nature-induced awe, showed that this form of awe could cause people to agree more with ethical decisions and to be more generous toward strangers. The researchers even took participants out into a "grove of towering trees" and found that it led to increased helpfulness and ethicality.


Put it in Practice

Help others foster a connection to nature. In the face of ecological crisis, it is important to acknowledge and portray the full-scale of our ecological challenges. However, research suggests that individuals need a connection to nature in order to be motivated to combat environmental catastrophes. As Notre Dame emeritus professor of psychology Darcia Narvaez puts it, “Increasing ecological attachment may be necessary to shift individuals and societies away from ecologically destructive actions.” While individual behavior changes are not sufficient to address global issues, they are often an important and necessary first step.

Start now. Research suggests that times of disruption, while uncomfortable and uncertain, also afford the best opportunity to break old habits and build new ones. For many, the pandemic may represent a rare opportunity to lock in new, improved patterns of behavior. 

Start small. Although researchers suggest that our disconnection from nature has happened slowly over the course of several centuries, we do not need to reverse the entire trend in order to experience the benefits a connection to nature brings. Study participants have experienced improvements in their attitudes and behaviors by simply paying attention to aspects of the natural world that already surround them or even by experiencing nature "secondhand"—through video and the written word.

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