An Ecology of Well-Being

We place great emphasis on the environment in terms of natural wealth, and the importance of its preservation for the future of the biosphere. But we must also highlight the fact that the presence of a healthy natural environment has a remarkable effect on our subjective well-being.

In his book An Ecology of Happiness, Éric Lambin, professor at the Universities of Louvain and Stanford, presents a summary of several studies showing that despite the contingencies of modern life, we are still intimately linked to nature. In one of these studies, Slovenian physicist Aleksander Zidansek identified a positive correlation between the life satisfaction of the inhabitants of a given country and that country’s environmental performance indicators. He has also shown that a country’s CO2 emissions are inversely proportional to the well-being of its citizens.

Mankind/People has an innate emotional affinity with other living beings, the plant world, and natural landscapes. This timeless, age-old relationship with nature, a profound part of our own biological make-up, has been the object of a substantial body of scientific research. When people are asked to chose between photographs of various kinds of sceneries, the ones they appreciate most are those depicting vast, verdant landscapes with a scattering of trees and areas of water.

It is astonishing that this preference is observed regardless of the geographical origin of the individual being asked, including the Inuit, who have never even seen such landscapes. These reactions can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that for our ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, relatively high open spaces with a few trees for shelter would have offered an ideal opportunity for looking out for both predators, of whom they were fearful, and game, on which they relied for food. The verdant element evokes plenty, and water sources represent vital conditions for survival. Looking at such landscapes instills a sense of peace, safety, and contentment in most of us.

A study published in the journal Science by the American geographer Roger Ulrich has also shown that patients convalescing from surgery recover more quickly when their hospital bed looks out on a natural landscape – a park or a lake – than on a brick wall or a building. On average, the former left hospital one day sooner than the latter, had less need for painkillers, and the nurses found that they were more pleasant as patients (1). Similarly, in a prison in Michigan, it was observed that prisoners whose cell window looked out on an inner courtyard required medical attention 24% more frequently than those prisoners whose windows gave out onto the countryside (2).

(1) Ulrich, R. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery. Science, 224, 224–225. Lambin, É. (2009). Op. cit., p. 51.

(2) Moore, E. O. (1981). A prison environment’s effect on health care service demands. Journal of Environmental Systems, 11(1), 17–34.
Cited in Lambin, É. (2009). Op. cit., p. 52.