Happiness is a Cold Fish

Measuring health and satisfaction in Puget Sound

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Is hugging trees good for you?

A recent study of Puget Sound-area residents found that engagement with nature can be linked to overall happiness.

Scientists across the world have long reported a link between spending time outdoors and an improved mood. Going for a hike in the countryside is not only good for your health, but it also may be essential to your happiness, research indicates.

“The well-being of human communities is inextricably linked to the health of the earth’s biophysical environment,” the report authors assert. “Humans rely on nature for physical, economic, and cultural benefits, while ecosystems across the globe are influenced by human actions.”

The study—“The science and politics of human well-being: a case study in cocreating indicators for Puget Sound restoration,” first published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology last spring and released this week by the University of Washington’s Puget Sound Institute—found that Cascadians’ interactions with the natural environment have a direct, if subtle, relationship to their reported happiness.

“The key to managing for healthy social-ecological systems is to effectively integrate environmental, economic, and societal needs,” authors conclude.

The research, which drew on 4,418 responses to an online survey, was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency through a grant to the Puget Sound Institute at the University of Washington Tacoma. All of the participants involved in the study lived in the Puget Sound region.

“We (in the Pacific Northwest) are pretty much the leaders in trying to understand how happiness and integration with the environment relate to each other,” Kelly Biedenweg, lead author of the study, told the Tacoma News Tribune. Biedenweg is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University.

The report authors wanted to better understand the link between overall enjoyment with life and how often they engaged with the surrounding environment. 

Thirteen different factors were assessed, including access to wild resources and stress eased by time outdoors. Others attempted to measure psychological connectness to Puget Sound, rootedness in a social and cultural community, and trust in government making natural resource decisions. Researchers claim 11 of these had a positive correlation to improving mood.

Believing the environment was being managed well by those in charge was found to provide the biggest boost in well-being. It’s a strong argument against dismantling the EPA or rolling back conservation efforts like the Endangered Species Act.

“The fact that trust in governance was a significant predictor of life satisfaction—in fact, the most statistically significant predictor of the ones we looked at—it was nice to see that come out of the research,” Biedenweg noted. 

“Whether people feel like things are fair and they have a voice in the process of making decisions and whether governance is transparent—those are the foundations of why people even can interact with nature,” she said.

“One of the first steps to enhancing social justice is to make sure all relevant stakeholders have an opportunity to participate in framing decisions,” the report authors note. “The project placed substantial effort in inviting individuals representing a wide range of values, including Native Americans, conservationists, agricultural interests, economic developers, and members of the political Tea Party movement, among others.”

Taking each of these local perspectives into consideration was not simply to ensure the fair distribution of benefits and consequences, but also to recognize and include a broad constellation of the moral and political community, they say.

“The feedback from local stakeholders, regional decision makers, and external social scientists was critical to address the diverse concerns in the region about scientific rigor, representativeness of stakeholder values, and political feasibility” of developing management policy for natural assets, the authors noted.

Puget Sound indicators provide a model for identifying, selecting and monitoring diverse concepts of well-being related to environmental restoration in a way that promotes recognition, participation and a fair distribution of environmental benefits across the region, the study concludes.

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