The Science of Sustainability

Look at Nature, Get Happy

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What do hospitals and Costa Rica have in common? Science says: they both benefit from beautiful natural landscapes.

In fact, we all do.

If you've ever spent any time in hospitals, you know they can be anxious, painful places. Gardens offset this intrinsic stress with the calm of nature, whether experienced in person, through a window, or just in pictures. It may sound subjective, but the benefits–from lowering blood pressure to easing brain fatigue–are anything but.

Nature improves the lives of patients and doctors, the sick and the healthy, and even people who have nothing to do with hospitals. Consider the case of Costa Rica.

Flowers and Greenery in Costa Rica

Costa Rica flowers by DoctorWho via Flickr

According to the World Database of Happiness, from 2000-2009 Costa Ricans reported the highest life satisfaction of any nationality on the planet. Recent research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests that this small Central American country owes its happiness to two factors: human capital, the strength of social support, and natural capital, the quality of the natural environment and people’s access to it.

Any biologist can tell you that Costa Rica is overflowing with natural capital. Rainforests and reefs thick with life make it one of the world's ecological meccas. How could you not be happy, living somewhere that beautiful?

Then again, another key to happiness is appreciating what we already have. From the wild loneliness of Big Sur to the rolling gold of wine country, there's plenty of natural beauty in the Bay Area to call our own.

Poppies on Big Sur Coastline

Big Sur Poppies by Ed Yourdon via Flickr

But the Bay Area is also home to some fierce workaholics. And hospitals don't have a monopoly on anxiety and stress.

So here's an idea: If you spend all day (and sometimes night) in an office, put some nature on the wall. Researcher Roger Ulrich and his colleagues discovered that heart surgery patients who saw a nature scene of trees and water were less anxious and actually experienced less pain than patients who saw blank walls or abstract pictures. Maybe it's time to take down that Mondrian–or at least supplement with a Monet.

Perhaps even better than Monet (who reminds some of us uncomfortably of high school art history) is the abundance of contemporary local talent. One Bay Area artist, Ellen Joseph, explicitly bases her healing paintings on Ulrich's research. Her murals cover the walls of Kaiser Pediatrics in Hayward and Fremont with colorful trees, birds, and even monkeys.

No need to travel all the way to Costa Rica!

Kaiser Pediatrics Mural by Ellen Joseph

Kaiser Pediatrics Mural by Ellen Joseph

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Category: Environment, Health, Sustainable Health

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Danna Staaf

About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.
  • http://organic-living-blog.com/ Linda

    Nice article, it is true that most of the people don't appreciate what they have anymore. Putting nature on the wall can really make you happy ofcouse, maybe I should also try it at home!

  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    inspiring me to take a highway one roadtrip!