science of us

Okay, But How Many Trees Count As Nature?

Photo: Ilona Nagy/Getty Images

This past weekend, like most weekends, I found myself wishing desperately for a car, so that I could leave New York City for the day. My friends with cars are always going off on day trips upstate, or to Connecticut, and whenever I am so lucky as to be invited (thank-you), I revel in the time spent “in nature” — defined here as any place in which you see greenery and/or bodies of water in at least two of four cardinal directions. Sometimes I say I’m “in nature” when I guess what mean is that I’m in a town where people have yards with trees in them. Does that count?

I ask because a recent study found that spending just five minutes “in nature” can cause a significant improvement in mood, and if that’s all it takes, I should make sure I’m “in nature” every day. But what does that mean, really? For the purposes of the study, nature is defined in contrast to “a windowless laboratory room,” so I guess it’s not very surprising that the students who got to go outside were happier than their shut-in peers. Students in the nature group were directed to sit “on a bench in an urban park located on the border of the campus,” a spot chosen for “its moderate biodiversity.”

The researchers, professors at the University of Regina in Canada, ran the study in the fall and winter months, but didn’t make the students sit outside if it was raining, or below -4 degrees Fahrenheit. (I enjoy the mental image of a professor standing outside with a thermometer, grinning evilly at its -3 degree reading.) Those students who sat on the bench for just five minutes reported significant increases in positive emotions and “self-transcendent emotions” afterward, while those sitting in the lab did not. Curiously, both groups reported a decrease in negative emotions, which, I’m sorry to say, might be a point in favor of meditation, because, as phones and other devices were forbidden, and students were asked to focus on their setting, that is basically what they were doing.

But anyway, back to the bench. I have to tell you, when I first read this study, I was picturing the most idyllic bench setting the world has ever seen. If this bench could do that much good for those college kids in just five minutes, I figured, it had to be really nature-y. Think of a bench on the side of a hill that looks over a lake surrounded by forest, and there are birds overhead and loons in the lake. (Okay, fine: I’m homesick for Minnesota.) What good does that do me, a person who lives in New York, not particularly close to any of our more scenic parks? If I’m going to get somewhere in nature every day, especially if it’s only for five minutes, I need to be able to walk there.

Then I saw the picture of the actual bench used in the experiment.

Photo: Calum Neill

No offense to the University of Regina, or this very okay looking bench, but if this is how being in nature is defined — some grass, some trees — then I have no excuse, and you probably don’t either. There is a literal garbage can RIGHT there. Still, I wonder about nature’s exact parameters: does looking at my succulents count for anything? What if I carry them outside, cradling them in my arms? It is worth a try.

How Many Trees Count As Nature?