Dr. John Zelenski is a Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. As a researcher and director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory, he studies individual differences in happiness, and how personality manifests itself 'in the moment' as emotional, behavioral, and cognitive processes. His recent work has focused on two areas: the causes and consequences of social behavior, and the links among nature, people’s sense of connection to nature, happiness, and environmentally sustainable behavior.
Joyce Brown: What is the Carleton University Happiness Lab? What do you do there?
John Zelenski: I teach a couple of classes like most professors do, but I also conduct research and oversee student work at the Happiness Lab. We were fortunate here at Carleton University to get funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation; they helped build the lab about ten years ago. When people think of a happiness lab they might imagine it's full of chocolate fountains, ponies, and rainbows, but it's just a basic office space.
What's crucial to the happy lab are the people who are in it. Right now there are about five to eight graduate students and five to ten undergraduates who are all conducting happiness research. We get together on a weekly basis to coordinate, collaborate, and share research and findings.
Joyce: I watched one of your talks online about being happy in nature, and you spoke about nature relatedness; what it nature relatedness?
John: My long-time collaborator, Lisa Nisbet, came to me when she was a student and said, ‘I think that nature might make people happy, and I know you’re interested in happiness.’ We both shared an interest in sustainability and the environment, and we worked on research methods to create a measure of individual differences that we now call nature relatedness.
The idea of nature relatedness is how much people think of themselves as being connected with nature. It has different elements to it, so you might have an emotional connection with nature where you feel like you care about it and want to preserve it. You might have a more cognitive or a mental association with nature, where you have a sense or a belief that humans are very much interconnected with natural ecosystems. Even though we might live in condos, and there's not a lot of greenery around, we're still very much impacted by, and impacting our ecosystem. There’s also a physical connection. People who think of themselves as connected to nature find themselves in it more often. They might seek ways to associate more closely with nature whether it’s an urban oasis, a small city park, or making efforts to get out to more remote green spaces.
Joyce: I’ve heard you say ‘Happy people, healthy planet.' Can you explain what you mean by that?
John: That’s been the guiding vision, or the big question, that we've been trying to explore over the years, a notion of a happy path to sustainability. One thing we've found is that people who have a strong connection with nature and score high in nature relatedness, tend to be a little bit happier than people who score lower on it. People who score higher report more positive emotions, and they have a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life.
They also, perhaps unsurprisingly, are more prone to behave in sustainable or pro-environmental ways. Often we have this notion that to behave in environmentally responsible ways, or to behave sustainably involves a lot of sacrifices. But, if you're acting in sustainable ways out of concern, love, and appreciation for nature because you feel connected to it, it can be a very positive experience. Spending more time in nature offers a lot of benefits like being happier, recovering from stress quicker, and it can even improve things like creativity and physical health.
There's just more and more research that proves spending time in nature is good for us. We get a lot of benefit out of it, and along with that then we might develop concern. We've been focused on trying to address this and asking how can we get people connected to nature, and how might that make them happier and behave in more sustainable ways.
Joyce: What happens to somebody if they become disconnected from nature?
John: I think most people would agree that we've become quite disconnected from nature. Most of us live in urban settings and we don't have a real sense of where our food comes from, for example. People have speculated that this is very much wrapped up in why we don't treat the natural world better. When protecting nature isn’t at the forefront of our minds, we don't notice some of the negative things that we're doing to our planet. I think a better alternative would be to reverse that trend. We all need to get outside more and make connections.
Joyce: Do the results of any of your nature related studies vary depending on race, gender, geographical location, or religion?
John: That’s a great question, and I wish I had a great answer for you. Regarding individuals feeling connected to nature, we find that women score a little bit higher than men on average, but it's not an enormous difference. We don’t have substantial research on ethnic or cultural differences in nature relatedness either. There was a recent study in the Czech Republic, and they seemed to find similar kinds of associations as we found in our research. While, at the same time, I think the way we think about and relate to nature probably does have some cultural component to it, but we haven't been able to break that down yet.
Joyce: You also talk about how people who are introverts can pretend to be extroverts to get a little boost and feel happier. If I pretend to be more outgoing, what's happening to make me feel happier?
John: We started studying this from a pretty skeptical perspective, but now we're finding it to be true in many studies. We have a couple of ideas, and one of them is that people tend to be social creatures, so even though we differ in the extent to which we like to be around people — a lot or less so — those times when we are around people may be meeting some basic need. It's something that introverts don't want to do as often, but when they do it, it's still rewarding to them. Also, behaving in extroverted ways includes things like being active, or trying new things, or maybe being slightly more assertive than you otherwise would be. A broad selection of these active, energetic, but not necessarily social kinds of behaviors helps you get things done.
For example, even though I'm dispositionally introverted, when I act in extroverted ways I'm able to accomplish goals. I might be giving a lecture, or talking with students about working on a project, or I might even be doing something that requires me to be a bit more assertive than I otherwise want to be, and that helps me accomplish goals, and that makes me feel good.
We're also just beginning some studies on this now, but when people act in extroverted ways, they get more positive feedback from others. In the studies, we've been asking people to act in more extroverted ways and when they do it elicits more smiling, more positive interactions and friendlier behavior from others.
Joyce: What are three small things that we could do every day to boost our happiness?
John: I would say spend some time in nature, practice a few minutes of extroverted behavior, and express gratitude in your relationships.
A short walk in nearby nature does an excellent job of boosting happiness. Also, adding just 10 minutes of extroverted behavior to your day can give you a pick-me-up. If you spend your whole day trying to be extroverted, you may run out of steam. But for brief periods of time, it’s very helpful. Drawing on what positive psychology has suggested, one thing that seems to come out relatively strongly for boosting happiness is having a sense of gratitude and appreciation. Feeling appreciative is something you could do on your own, but if you take a moment to express gratitude to other people it can deepen your interpersonal relationships — and it makes them happy too.
To learn more about Dr. Zelenski and his work at the Carleton University Happiness Lab, visit this link.