“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. … There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Since the 1970s, health and nature research has integrated self-report questionnaires in understanding human experience. Analysis and design of these kinds of surveys has advanced tremendously, as well as methods to quantify changes in the human brain and body. But, much of what is known over the last few centuries has been based on conscious self-expression from philosophers and poets. Contemporary writers such as Rachel Carson, Jane Austen, and Jack Kerouac share personal accounts of a nature experience. In the past decade, powerful insight and meaning is gleaned from the breadth of experiences documented in Nature Sacred’s Bench Stories.
Research using data from interviews, observations, focus groups and surveys is increasingly sophisticated. Scientists test and re-test a designed survey, comparing and analyzing answers against demographics, or when and where. Scientists use statistical analysis to determine whether the survey questions are bias, or whether the survey adequately captured the human tendency to lie (even to ourselves). Much of current research tends to “triangulate” different data sources such as blood pressure, large data sets, self-surveys and satellite data of tree canopy. In many areas of science, knowing how people feel about their ability to bounce back from a stressful event can be just as critical and telling as a final outcome. Nature Sacred partner Marc Berman and colleagues explain their research method choices 1 :
“Subjective self-rated health perception was chosen as one of the health outcomes because self-perception of health has been found to be related to morbidity and mortality rates and is a strong predictor of health status and outcomes in both clinical and community settings.”
Measures used in nature engagement and health research commonly investigate self-reported mood or attention. Most self-report mood questionnaires use a series of questions and ask the participant to rate each on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (completely). The Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS), a common measure, includes questions such as “I feel alive and vital” and “I got several new ideas”. Some measures, like the “Focus of Attention Scale”, check whether participants focus their attention on the environment in comparison to other people or the activity itself (such as walking).
Theorists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan are major contributors to health and nature research. Their “Attention Restoration Theory” is a foundation for many surveys, such as the Restoration Outcome Scale (ROS) and the Perceived Restorativeness Scale. The ROS scale includes questions reflecting relaxation and calmness (”I feel restored and relaxed”, “I have enthusiasm and energy for my everyday routines”), attention restoration (“I feel focused and alert”), and clearing one’s thoughts (“I can forget everyday worries”). Statistical analysis, in various stages of complexity, is applied to these data sets.
Although most of us don’t employ advanced statistics everyday, the ease and ability to track one’s mood, feelings, thoughts and activities is advancing, if not out-competing, current research methods. Those with smartphone access can unleash their inner scientist using many applications (apps). Apps are an accessible and current method allowing anyone to document and learn about themselves. Although global technology access is debatable, a recent study of over 1600 mobile phone users in the United States found that about 58% had downloaded a health-related mobile app. Fitness and nutrition were the most common app categories. Many apps exist to document physical activity while running or walking outside. Dozens exist to chart and compare mood. A recent research study reviewed 23 apps designed to encourage mindfulness and meditation, but findings are varied.
Technology encouraging people to learn, explore and spend time in the outdoors is lacking. A December 2015 study of 6300 nature-related apps discovered that most were phone ringtones and wallpapers, or services related to hunting, fishing and birding. Four percent were designed to accompany trips to zoos, museums or botanical gardens. None at the time of this writing encourage nature engagement and health. One app, used by the writer here, has been helpful and adapted to understand personal health while outside. Daylio enables the user to pick a mood and current activity and provides statistical data after enough entries are collected (No product endorsement intended). One can add moods and activities, and keep them private. This could be useful for those who want to understand their mood and thoughts while at the neighborhood park, taking a walk, or spending a quiet moment with a loved one. Nature Sacred encourages you to take a moment for yourself, with or without technology by your side.
For encouragement, toolkits and advice on how to spend more time outdoors, join the May 2016 30×30 Nature Challenge in your workplace, home or school: http://30×30.davidsuzuki.org