Maï Yasué: Why people need nature

A review of some of the empirical evidence

by Maï Yasué, PhD

Maï Yasué is a Bowen Island resident and Tutor in Conservation and Development at Quest University Canada in Squamish, BC

One reason for leaving some wild places is that nature is good for people. The imposition of large rectilinear structures inevitably changes the experience of nature. In this outline, she looks at the scientific literature underlining how nature is good for people.

A fun book to read about this research (in case scientific papers aren’t your thing) is: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

Time spent in nature makes people smarter

  • A randomized control experiments demonstrated that walks in nature and pictures of nature restores attention and leads to better cognitive function (Berman 2008; Tenneson and Cimprich 1995 )
  • A randomized control study of women recovering after breast cancer surgery indicated that spending time in nature lead to faster recovery in their ability to direct attention (Cimprich 1993)
  • A study that relocated families from poor urban neighbourhoods to more natural areas demonstrated improvements in the attention and hyperactivity of children after they had moved to neighbourhoods with more nature (Wells 2000)
  • Children in nature-based day care facilities had better motor coordination and attention capacity than children who attended day care settings in an urban environment (Grahn et al 1997)

Nature has health benefits

Patients who had views of nature outside their window (as opposed to a brick building) experienced faster recovery from surgery and less of a need for pain killers (Ulrich 1984)

Exposure to nature leads to more caring people

A series of experiments demonstrated that exposure and immersion in nature lead to greater intrinsic motivation (doing something for the joy and reward of doing it, eg. building community, intimacy) and more generosity towards other people (Weinstein et al. 2008).

Time spent in nature for children lead to future environmental stewards

A study showed that childhood experiences in “wild nature” camping, hunting, foraging and hiking lead to positive environmental attitudes and behaviour. Although time spent in “domesticated nature” (eg. gardens) leads to positive attitudes about the environment, these experiences did not lead to pro-environmental behaviours (Wells and Lekies 2006). Further, environmental education  (eg. in elementary school) had no effect on environmental attitude or behaviour.

Nature leads to happier people

  • Children who lived near nature in rural areas had an improved ability to cope with stress in their lives (Wells and Evans 2003)
  • Girls who lived close to nature and had views of nature had  improved self-discipline (Taylor et al. 2001)
  • Women who feel more connect to nature and spend time on wilderness trips objectify their own bodies less (Scott 2010)
  • A review paper suggested that people who spend more of their time doing activities that are intrinsically motivated (see above, Weinstein et al 2008) are also happier (Kasser 2009)


Berman,M.G., Jonides, J. and Kaplan, S. 2008. The cognitive benefits
of interacting with nature. Psychological Science. 19: 1207-1212.

Cimprich, B. 1993. Development of an intervention to restore attention in cancer patients. Cancer Nursing  16: 82-93.

Kasser, T. 2009. Psychological need satisfaction, personal well-being
and ecological sustainability. Ecopsychology. 1: 175-180

Leyden, K.M. 2003. Social capital and the built environment: the
importance of walkable neighbourhoods. American Journal of Public
Health. 93(9): 1546-1551.

Scott, Babes and the Woods: Women’s objectification and the feminine beauty ideals as ecological hazards. 2010 Ecopsychology. 2: 147

Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E. and Sullivan, W.C. 2001. Views of nature and
self-discipline: evidence from inner city children. Journal of
Environmental Psychology 21:

Tennessen, C.M. and Cimprich, B. 1995. Views to nature: effects on
attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15:77-85

Ulrich, R.S. 1984. Views through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 224:420-421.

Wells, N.M. 2000. At home with nature: effects of “greenness” on children’s cognitive functioning. Environment and Behaviour 32: 775.

Wells, N.M. and Evans,G.W. 2003. Nearby nature, a buffer of life
stress among rural children. Environment and Behaviour 35: 311-330

Wells, N.M. and Lekies,K.S. 2006. Nature and the life course: pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environment 16

Weinstein,N. Przybylski,A.K. and Ryan,R.M. 2009. Can nature make us
more caring? Effects of immersion in nature on intrinsic aspirations
and generosity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.