Time In Nature Helps Curb Impulsivity And Boost Self-Control

New research may pave the way for nature-based addiction treatments.
Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

Spending time in nature -- aside from being one of life's greatest simple pleasures -- comes with a whole host of mental health benefits, from lower stress levels to reduced depression and anxiety to improved memory and focus.

Now, new research from the University of Montana suggests that going camping or taking a hike may also be helpful for combatting addiction, as researchers found that being exposed to nature led people to behave less impulsively and exercise greater self-control.

Impulsivity -- which in this case refers to the tendency to choose smaller, more immediate rewards over longer-term payoffs -- is highly correlated with overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, problematic gambling and other compulsive behaviors.

For the study, 45 undergraduate students each viewed a series of images of either natural (mountains, forests, lakes) or man-made environments (buildings, cities, roads). Then, each participant completed a task designed to measure impulsivity, answering questions like whether they'd rather be given $50 immediately or $100 at a later time. They also completed a task designed to measure their perception of time, in which they were monitored for a several seconds and then asked to estimate how much time had passed.

The researchers found that participants who looked at the pictures of nature exercised greater self-control, while those who looked at the images of buildings and cities were significantly more likely to choose the immediate payoff.

The scientists also determined that participants who saw nature pictures perceived time to go by more slowly than those who viewed the images of man-made locations.

What explains this effect? It's likely that the calmness and tranquility of natural landscapes reduces stress levels and promotes relaxation, which results in a feeling of time going by more slowly or a sense of having free time. In turn, this more expansive sense of time may encourage us to consider the relative benefits of future over immediate rewards.

"When our perception of time is expanded, this may help to bridge the gap between present choices and future consequences," Dr. Meredith Berry, a psychologist at the university and one of the study's authors, told The Huffington Post in an email. "Such expanded time perception may enable us to favor long-term healthier behaviors, rather than immediate gratification."

Similarly, a 2012 Stanford study found that being exposed to natural scenes that induced a sense of awe altered people's perception of time, making them feel that time was going by more slowly and that they had more time to spare.

With further research, the new findings could have some important applications for combatting addiction and improving health-related decisions and behaviors.

"This line of research does provide initial evidence that exposure to natural environments beneficially influences how we make future-oriented decisions. This influence -- which highlights decisions for long-term benefit -- is particularly relevant for individuals with substance abuse disorders for increasing choices that favor long-term health," Berry said. "A nature-based treatment component may be a valuable addition to standard therapies for individuals struggling with substance abuse."

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