2022 Jan 4
Tal Svoray-Department of Geography and Environmental Development, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel
Exposure to nature and happiness
Exposure to nature (ETN) is associated with increased well-being and happiness, reduced stress and improved general life satisfaction. Spending time in the wilderness can improve one’s mental state and even green parks within the built environment may advance well-being.
Individuals report less mental distress and greater well-being when they live in urban areas with more green space5 and occasional nature visits improve life satisfaction and well-being in general. Furthermore, nature, measured as a composite score based on distance from water bodies, green and underdeveloped built areas, has been significantly associated with happy facial expressions (HFE) of individuals, mainly during warm months6. Similarly, in the UK, MacKerron and Mourato found that research participants were significantly and substantially happier outdoors in green and other natural habitat types than they were in built environments.
One framework that predicts such a result is Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which suggests that nature―which is relatively undemanding for attentional resources―renews one’s cognitive capacity for focusing attention. In turn, individuals with renewed directed attention suffer less cognitive fatigue and experience positive emotions such as increased happiness.
Collectivistic and individualistic dimensions
Individualism-collectivism has been identified as a central dimension of cultural diversity. Collectivist cultures are characterized by special concern for and maintenance of relationships. People are interdependent within their group, especially the family, and they strive to promote what their group expects of them. In individualistic societies, people’s main concern is their autonomy; They are independent of their inner groups, want to progress and to influence their social group.
Kagitcibasi proposed a non-dichotomous model, according to which some con-temporary individualistic cultures also include the basic interdependence within the family that is characteristic of more collectivistic cultures. In other words, collectivism and individualism may be independent rather than dichotomous variables, and cultures may be similar in terms of one of these dimensions yet differ in regard to the other. A review article conducted by Ogihara pointed to an important trend of strengthening the dimension of individualism among Japanese society as a result of economic factors, strengthening of urbanization, divorce rate increased and household size decreased. As a result of this trend, more similarity in the individualism dimension is expected between American society and Japanese society. However, the same review article highlights the presence and importance of other social values associated with collectivism among Japanese society. Thus, we can assume that Japanese society still emphasizes more values of collectivism as compared to American society.
The role of the cultural context in the ETN-HFE association
Facial expressions are a common form of nonverbal information transfer that may be used to convey emotional states of a person to other persons. A question exists about the universality of facial expressions. Whereas Darwin18 claimed that facial expressions evolved to protect the human species from misinterpretation of the intentions of other individuals, others argue for a culture-dependent approach to facial expressions. In contrast, the effect of attention restoration should be universal, in that nature, regardless of place, is expected to provide renewal of the directed attention resource when it has been dissipated by everyday distractions, and therefore people should be happier in restorative natural sites. However, cross-national differences may not be necessarily equal, but ordered in the same way, because of the chronic and moment-to-moment salience of individualism and collectivism.
For example, Japanese individuals, on average, apparently are more emotionally restrained than Americans, in both positive and negative emotions. If the cultural effect on the ETN-HFE relation is indeed substantial, one would expect that individuals in Japan, a more collectivist culture, tend to upload fewer pictures with HFE in natural settings, compared to Americans, a less collectivistic culture. On the other hand, if the ETN-HFE effect is universal, Japanese individuals will also upload photos with HFE in natural sites and one would conclude that ETN activates the renewal of directed attention in individuals in both groups, despite the cultural differences.
As for the effect of others, Japanese lay theories conceive of emotions as interpersonal, because of their tendency to regard most behavior as relational24. In contrast, American lay theories conceive of emotions as intrapersonal because of that culture’s tendency to regard most behavior as independent of others. Consequently, in Japanese contexts, emotions are more likely to be expressed when relationships are salient. Thus, compared to Americans, Japanese individuals should be more emotional or happier in social contexts and less happy outside such contexts, for example when they are not with others.
Aim and objectives
The aim of this study was to determine whether exposure to nature is associated with happy facial expressions similarly in individuals from collectivist (Yokohama, Japan) and individualist (Boston, MA) societies. It had three specific goals: (1) to investigate whether the ETN-HFE link is universal, that is, whether the associations are the same in Boston and Yokohama; (2) to assess the effect on HFE of other spatio-temporal trends—diurnal, monthly, and seasonal—and whether those effects vary among regions; and (3) to investigate whether the presence of other people affects HFE, including whether that differs in individualist and collectivist societies.
Universal vs. culture-based outcomes
The question of ubiquity has long been pursued by psychologists, to better understand the effect of culture on human functioning. The association of culture, societal behavior, education and symbols with perception, cognition and emotions may be present but the question is whether they are substantial and, if the answer is yes, are they strong enough to mask the main effect of ETN on HFE, for example. Within this context, the association of individualistic vs. collectivistic societal differences with HFE is among the most significant questions about human behavior11,20. Large variations occur in the responses to external stimuli of individuals from the two cultural contexts.
Our data support the hypothesis of a universal effect of ETN on HFE, at least for the two culturally different cities studied. ETN-HFE relation appears to hold in both cities and the cities vary on several dimensions including the cultural aspect. This is the most important finding of this work and it expands the literature on the relation between exposure to nature and human emotion in the debate about universality versus culturally-based emotion. Specifically, the study suggests that green areas are more appreciated by the more collectivist Japanese society while proximity to water, weekends and hot months are more appreciated in the American society.
Another important finding is that in both societies, HFEs were more prevalent in the presence of others, but the relation was stronger in the American society. These results may inform governments and the general public about possible sites and timing to increase happiness and well-being by interacting with nature.
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