Psychogeography is the study how the geographic environment effects our moods and behaviors. While it may seem to be inconsequential studies have found that the environment you live in can have significant effects on your happiness and emotional wellbeing.
In order to determine what makes city scenes pleasant or unpleasant, Quercia O’Hare and Kramer used crowdsource data to determine what visual features made people perceive
areas as beautiful, quiet, and or happy. They found that greenery is the cue most positively associated with all three categories. On the other hand, “fortress-like” buildings, broad streets and public housing complexes were seen as the most ugly, noisy, and unhappy features (Quercia O’Hare and Kramer, 2014).
Quercia, Schifanella, and Aiello then built on this data to develop an app for London and Boston that balances finding the shortest routes with making sure that the routes they pick are prettier, happier, and quieter. They crowdsourced data from individuals who compared
their perceived beauty, quiet, and happiness of two random street scenes to determine what landmarks and areas were the most aesthetically pleasing. They found that users of their app thought that their routes were significantly more beautiful, quiet and happy than the shortest possible one (Quercia, Schifanella, and Aiello, 2014).
You may ask yourself, how much does all of this really matter? Well, in a longitudinal study of 10,000 urban residents
individuals who lived in areas with more green space had significantly lower mental distress, and higher well being than those who didn’t (White et al., 2013). Similarly, a study of two neighborhoods in Belgium with similar demographics and socioeconomic status, one high and one low in green space found that residents of the greener one were happier than their counterparts (Van Herzele & de Vries 2013). Interestingly, the study noted that being able to physically see greenery from your living room was the variable that had the highest correlation to happiness with the neighborhood.
So what is it about green spaces that is so special anyways? A Swedish study looked at how people rated green spaces to see how these ratings correlated with mental wellbeing. They found that people preferred areas that fall in the categories of serene, nature, and
refuge. They argue that this indicates that natural spaces give us a restorative environment when we are stressed, something that chaotic urban environments cannot do (Gidlöf-Gunnarsson & Öhrström, 2007).
One possible reason for our preference for nature is that it calms us down. In one experiment patients in an fMRI were shown images of a beach or highway, an played soundtracks from both (Hunter et al., 2010). Unsurprisingly the patients rated the beach scenes as making them feel more tranquil. Interestingly, the researchers argue that the sounds from both are functionally similar, producing what we perceive as a constant roar. They found that the tranquil beach scenes caused a high level of connectivity between the auditory cortex (where the brain processes sounds) and the medial prefrontal cortex, a region involved in the evaluation of mental states. However, this connectivity was not seen with the freeway images, even though the sound itself was not functionally different. This suggests that seeing nature can change how we perceive the input from our other senses, calming us down even in the presence of white noise.
So why does nature have this effect on us? According to the Evolutionary Hypothesis, we have inherited from our ancestors preference for landscapes that are non-threatening, suggest a presence of food, and have extent (the feeling the setting can be explored). This hypothesis not only explains some of the pleasure we derive from nature, it also suggests
that the chaotic and cramped urban environments we live in may be the least in tune with what we are programmed to look for in a hospitable environment (Balling & Falk, 1982).Backing this up, studies have shown people prefer scenes of the African savannah whether or not they have ever even been to Africa! (Chatterjee, 2013).
All of this research shows that access to green areas in urban environments should be considered a public health measure. It should also encourage you to go and take a walk through the park next time you are feeling especially stressed or depressed.
Balling, J. D., & Falk, J. H. (1982). Development of visual preference for natural environments. Environment and Behavior, 14(1), 5-28.
Chatterjee, A. (2013). The aesthetic brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art. Oxford University Press.
Gidlöf-Gunnarsson, A., & Öhrström, E. (2007). Noise and well-being in urban residential environments: The potential role of perceived availability to nearby green areas. Landscape and Urban Planning, 83(2), 115-126.
Han, K. T. (2010). An exploration of relationships among the responses to natural scenes scenic beauty, preference, and restoration. Environment and Behavior, 42(2), 243-270.
Hunter, M. D., Eickhoff, S. B., Pheasant, R. J., Douglas, M. J., Watts, G. R., Farrow, T. F., … & Woodruff, P. W. (2010). The state of tranquility: Subjective perception is shaped by contextual modulation of auditory connectivity.NeuroImage, 53(2), 611-618.
Quercia, D., O’Hare, N. K., & Cramer, H. (2014, February). Aesthetic capital: what makes london look beautiful, quiet, and happy?. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing (pp. 945-955). ACM.
Quercia, D., Schifanella, R., & Aiello, L. M. (2014, September). The shortest path to happiness: Recommending beautiful, quiet, and happy routes in the city. In Proceedings of the 25th ACM conference on Hypertext and social media (pp. 116-125). ACM.
White, M. P., Alcock, I., Wheeler, B. W., & Depledge, M. H. (2013). Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological science, 0956797612464659.
Van Herzele, A., & de Vries, S. (2012). Linking green space to health: a comparative study of two urban neighbourhoods in Ghent, Belgium.Population and Environment, 34(2), 171-193.