Spending time in nature has been shown to benefit mental health, and natural environments are often associated with positive moods and feelings of restoration. Research into this phenomenon has focused on the effects of landscapes and natural features – such as mountains, lakes and forests – on our sense of wellbeing. But a recent study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, suggests it is not only these enduring features of a landscape that bring therapeutic value. Temporary natural events like sunsets that take place on a daily basis may be just as important when we attribute value to a landscape.
Views of an environment can change many times during a day. Some of these ephemeral changes, such as unexpected thunderstorms, vibrant sunsets or radiant rainbows, are brief but may significantly alter the way people perceive and appreciate the landscape. Specifically, some of these dynamic changes can inspire awe and a sense of beauty that increases the value of the landscape.
Existing research has tended to focus on appraisals of urban and rural scenes under conditions of sunshine and blue skies, with few studies considering how diurnal rhythms and fleeting meteorological processes might impact landscape appraisals. To fill this gap in understanding and go beyond purely ‘blue-sky’ landscape mentality, scientists from the University of Exeter in the U.K. used the latest computer graphics to show carefully controlled landscape images of both urban and natural environments to more than 2,500 participants.
Participants were assigned randomly to the urban or the natural scenery group. Each participant was then shown six images depicting changes that may take place in the environment (urban or natural) during the course of a typical day. The researchers selected ephemeral phenomena that progressed from sunrise through to midday blue-skies (the control condition), on to a thunderstorm with visible lightning, followed by a rainbow, sunset, and then night-time with prominent moon and stars. This mix of diurnal changes and ephemeral phenomena was applied to each of the two landscapes.
The participants rated each image (from 0–10) on its beauty and ability to inspire awe and wonder in them. They were also asked how much they would be prepared to pay in order to visit this landscape (from a nearby location) and experience the moment depicted.
The results showed that, as might be expected, participants found the natural landscape more beautiful than the urban landscape. However, across both landscapes, sunrise, the presence of a rainbow, and sunset, all increased the aesthetic ratings. Sunset in the natural landscape was considered by participants as being the most beautiful scene of all.
Similarly, the natural landscapes were considered more awe-inspiring than the urban ones. Yet once again, the presence of ephemeral phenomena substantially modified these ratings. For the urban setting, all the ephemeral phenomena were associated with an increase in awe when compared to the blue-sky (control) condition, but to varying degrees. The presence of a rainbow was rated the most awe-inspiring event in the urban landscape.
Crucially, these changes were also behind variations in how the environments were valued. Participants were prepared to pay a premium of almost 10 per cent to visit a natural setting at sunrise compared to at midday under blue skies. They were prepared to pay a massive 41 percent more to visit a natural landscape to see a sunrise than to see a thunderstorm.
The research team said this kind of added value is normally attributed to more permanent features, such as scenic lakes or historic buildings. They suggested that encouraging people to experience sunsets and sunrises could help boost wellbeing, and might be used as part of green prescribing, where nature plays a therapeutic role in mental health treatment.:
“We’re all familiar with the urge to take a photo of a brilliant sunset or unexpected rainbow. The term ‘sunset’ has over 300 million tags on Instagram and people told us they’d be willing to pay a premium to experience these phenomena, but of course we can all experience them for free,” said study lead author Alex Smalley.
“Our research indicates that getting up a bit earlier for sunrise or timing a walk to catch sunset could be well worth the effort – the ‘wow’ factor associated with these encounters might unlock small but significant bumps in feelings of beauty and awe, which could in turn have positive impacts for mental wellbeing.”
The authors also noted how the occurrence of the phenomena they tested could vary greatly, based on where people live. Those on east-facing coastlines might find sunrise easier to see, whilst those in the west might more frequently experience sunset. Equally, thunderstorms may be more common in summer in the U.K., yet rainbows appear more often in winter.
“Most of the phenomena we tested can be fleeting and unpredictable, and we think this novelty is partly behind the effects we’re seeing. Given their potential to change people’s experiences in both natural and urban landscapes, there could be real value in highlighting how and where these events might be experienced, particularly in towns and cities,” added Smalley.
The authors suggest that, in the same way standardized signs direct tourists to important features such as historical buildings, viewpoints and museums, they could also be used to show people where ephemeral phenomena, such as sunrises, sunsets and starry nights could best be enjoyed. This might challenge the typical representations of landscapes as permanent and unchanging, and help people to experience the benefits of the sense of beauty and awe inspired by witnessing grand but transient natural events.
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