We focus on the relationship between restorative environments – whether urban or natural – and well-being and health. Several measures of hedonic and eudaimonic well-being, aesthetic experiences, tests of attentional functioning and physiological measures (cortisol, alpha-amylase, heart rate variability, blood pressure) are used. Over 60 scientific, international articles from 1996 onwards.
We have specialized in research on everyday favorite places (among urban residents) and their role in emotion- and self-regulation, including the role of memories and place attachment in affecting restorative outcomes. We also study the effectiveness of psychological task/instructions (placed along walking trails in forests/parks) intended to enhance stress restoration. Over 20 scientific, international articles from 1989 onwards.
One focus of our research is the relative benefits of physical activity carried out in different environments – indoors, outdoors in built settings, and natural settings.
We have investigated recovery from work stress as it relates to nature/greenspace exposure. Over 15 scientific, international articles from 2014 onwards.
Some of our main findings
- The development of the Environmental Self-regulation hypothesis / theory (EST) from 1989 onwards. The theory describes how people consciously or preconsciously use physical environments for emotion- and self-regulation. These settings become favourite places over time contributing also to the regulation of self-experience and self-esteem. Favourite places can be urban and natural settings, indoors and outdoors. Regarding natural favourite places, the EST complements restorative environment theories ART (Attention Restoration Theory by the Kaplans) and SRT (Stress Reduction Theory by Ulrich) by describing how long-term wellbeing benefits may occur. In a nutshell, people may consciously or subconsciously recognize the wellbeing benefits of nature exposure in their everyday life, develop place attachments and start using natural settings to regulate and cope with stress and emotions.
- In a study with Finnish and Hungarian participants, we investigated the connection between reasons for visiting the favourite place, consequent experiences and perceived well-being (satisfaction with life and perceived health). Concerning the relationships between reasons, experiences and well-being variables, all of the three reason factors (“Sad, depressed”;” Happy, well”; “Alone, reflective) were significantly and positively related to the factor “Experiences of positive recovery of self” in the favourite place. This indicates that favourite places do indeed facilitate self-regulation by transforming negative cognitions and feelings into positive ones. However, positive recovery experiences were not related to well-being but distress experiences were negatively related to life satisfaction and perceived health.
- Extending restoration research by considering the role of indoor and outdoor favourite places and the role of top-down characteristics in restorative experiences we studied a sample of 945 university students and staff recruited in 5 western countries (Finland, Spain, The Netherlands, UK and Australia). The participants answered an online questionnaire. In the linear regression models, perceived restorative potential, place attachment and place identification were the strongest predictors of subjective restoration. Personality traits did not play a significant role in restorative experiences.
- Over the years, several measures and scales related to restorative, aesthetic and nature (green- and bluespace) experiences have been developed in co-operation with colleagues in Finland and abroad: Perceived restorativeness Scale (PRS), Restoration Outcome Scale (ROS), Perceived Environmental Aesthetic Qualities Scale (PEAQS), Children’s Vitality-Relaxation Scale, Kokonaisvaltaisen luontokokemuksen mittari (KOLU)
- In experiments applying the priming paradigm, we provided evidence that in line with Ulrich’s SRT theory people have rapid, automatic affective reactions toward physical environments. Urban and natural settings evoke different reactions. The recognition of positive emotions ( = happy faces or voices) becomes faster (in reaction time) after seeing pictures of natural settings than after seeing urban pictures. On the contrary, the recognition of negative emotions (=disgusted or angry faces or voices) becomes faster after seeing pictures of urban settings than after seeing natural settings.
- In randomized controlled trials on workplaces, we showed that in a 10-day intervention, 15-minute parkwalks and relaxation exercises during lunch breaks enhanced knowledge workers’ recovery from work. Restoration increased and fatigue decreased markedly immediately after lunch breaks and in the afternoon in both intervention groups. However, most consistent positive effects across the day were reported by the park walking group.
- User surveys in four countries have provided self-report evidence of the effectiveness of psychological task/instructions placed along walking trails in forests/urban parks. For the majority of the walkers, the tasks increased the restorative experience and positive mood. Satisfaction with the signposts’ contents was significantly connected to positive restorative change and mood enhancement. In walking experiments with and without psychological tasks, we have shown that tasks based on enhancing the restorative experience were related to the improvement of sustained, directed attention.
- Categorizations of affect regulation strategies and coping methods have ignored the use of environmental strategies, that is, the use of specific sociophysical settings (urban and natural favorite places) and their experiential contents as a common means of affect and stress regulation. In a 9-country survey study, we showed that Environmental regulation formed a separate factor of affect regulation among the well-known other strategies, such as, cognitive reappraisal, talking, and venting. The perceived frequency of use and efficacy of environmental strategies were positively related to perceived health. Moreover, the perceived efficacy of environmental strategies was positively related to life satisfaction in regulating sadness.
- In a quasi-experimental field study that assessed the restoration experience of a sample of university students visiting two urban squares (in Tampere, Finland) we found that participants’ attentional performance improved and negative affect (depression and stress) decreased after spending 20 minutes in the squares. There was no increase in positive affect. Thus, urban open places provided experiences that seem to at least block the accumulation of attentional fatigue and negative mood. This effect applied particularly to more urban-oriented people. The results suggest that built open urban settings can provide some restorative benefits in the “lower end” of a restoration continuum or an “incomplete restorative experience”.
- In a study of environmental preferences and instoration (perceptions of restorative potential and outcomes without a prior stress intervention are called instorative) we had the participants rate urban and natural scenes in terms of preference, instorative experiences, and affects. In two online experimental studies, we showed a primacy effect for instorative perceptions; that is, evaluations of the instorative benefits of a scene are more effective predictors of ratings of preference than preference ratings of perceived instorative benefits. This was true for both natural and urban types of scenes.
- In a pre-registered RCT study, we investigated the effects of a nature-based treatment (Flow with Nature, FWN) on participants diagnosed with depression. Participants were randomized into nature-based or standard care-only groups measured by several scales (BDI-I, CORE, ROS, WAI, GSRS) at pre, post and follow-up. The participants in the nature-based group were offered 12 nature-based sessions (90 mins) once a week in addition to standard care. The participants in the nature-based group, in comparison to the participants who received standard care only, showed a greater decrease in psychological distress and an increase in restorative experiences. The self-reported ability to work or study was increased at post-measurement. The depression scores in both groups reduced significantly and no differences were observed between the groups. However, nature sessions produced restorative experiences that mediated the decrease in depression. In a qualitative analysis of participants’ feedback, the key elements of the FWN intervention, social support and nature environment were experienced mainly positively. Feedback answers were in agreement with the central theoretical themes of FWN. The participants emphasised the significance of nature, social support and exercises differently. The development of FWN intervention continues but in all, nature-based intervention seems to be a safe and beneficial form of short-term group treatment for depression in addition to standard care.
Keywords: favourite places, restorative environments, urban/natural settings, emotion, attention, self-regulation, place attachment, place bonding, place identity, aesthetic experience, physical activity, well-being, stress recovery