By Melissa Lafrance on August 3, 2017
We often don’t stop to reflect on how our environment is interconnected and influences our own personal health and wellbeing. Read on to discover connections between our natural environment and its positive impacts on health and wellbeing.
Engaging with nature
Activities that promote engagement with the environment allow us to connect with nature in constructive ways, both for ourselves and for the greater good of our environments.
Research shows that we need nature to nurture our psychological, emotional and spiritual needs. It is also believed that being in nature relieves attention fatigue and increases creativity. Study results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. 
Being around nature also has interpersonal benefits. There is evidence indicating that people prone to perceiving natural beauty report greater prosocial tendencies, perspective taking, empathy, generosity, trust and helping behaviours. [2, 3]
In return, caring for the environment can develop into something more and can benefit our own wellbeing. Showing gratitude to nature can strengthen spiritual growth. According to a new study by UBC Assistant Professor Catherine Broom, protecting the environment can be as easy as telling children to go play outdoors. Children who play outside are more likely to care about nature.
Outdoor physical activity and mental wellbeing
Being alone with nature has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety.  When paired with physical activity outdoors, the benefits are even more significant. Research has shown that walking in forested areas decreases stress and anxiety, and inspires better moods when compared to walking in busy urban areas. Findings from additional studies indicate that walking in nature can spur positive emotions and improved performance on memory tasks. 
Green spaces and health benefits
A recent World Health Organization (WHO) report co-authored by Dr. Matilda van den Bosch, Assistant Professor in UBC’s School of Population & Public Health (SPPH), summarizes the health benefits of urban green spaces. Urban green spaces have shown various health benefits, including improved mood, stress relief and promotion of physical activity.
Whether you work at UBC Vancouver, UBC Okanagan or one of UBC’s many off-campus sites, we are so lucky to work in locations situated by the ocean or surrounded with greenery. Nature is basically at our fingertips. Explore the natural environment around you by taking a walking meeting or joining a walking group. Also, check out hidden gems on campus during your lunch break.
We know what influence the environment has on our personal health and wellbeing, which is another reason to care for our beautiful planet. We cannot care about personal health without incidentally caring about the environment. Now that we’ve made the connection, let’s find ways to sustain one another.
Other Related Information & Resources:
- City of Vancouver tips for sustainable living at home
- City of Vancouver green programs and volunteer opportunities
- UBC’s sustainable purchasing guide
- UBC’s glossary of green product labels and certifications.
- UBC’s Recyclepedia, an A-Z listing of items that can be recycled or composted on campus
 Zhang J et al: An occasion for unselfing: beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2014; volume 37 pages 61-72.
 Atchley R, Strayer D, Atchley P: Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning Through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE. 2012; 7(12): e51474.
Photo credit: Melissa Lafrance
By Miranda Massie on August 3, 2016
If one frog in a pond was sick, we would treat the frog. If every frog in a pond was sick, we would instead treat the pond.
In Western culture, we tend to associate health with individual agency. We frame health behaviour as something that is personal, individual and internally driven. And while this is one part of the picture, there is also a benefit in examining the physical world around us and how our surroundings can impact our overall wellbeing.
Both “built” (buildings and physical spaces) and “natural” (nature and outdoor places) environments play an important role in supporting our individual, organizational and institutional health.
Five Ways to Enhance Your Health Through Spaces and Places
Shed Some Light On It
Light drives our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Too little or too much light can impact our overall wellbeing. Exposure to natural light throughout the day can improve cognitive function as well as visual comfort while performing tasks.
Try: Taking a 10-minute break next to a window or going outside for a quick walk.
Bring Nature In
Contact with natural elements such as plants and foliage can elevate mood and boost positive attitudes. It can also improve attention while reducing stress (good for our mental and physical health).
Try: Keeping a small plant at your desk or put up a picture that incorporates elements of nature.
Furniture and spaces that can be adapted or customized to suit a variety of needs help to increase productivity and accessibility while also boosting social connectivity and inclusivity.
Try: Thinking outside the box. Re-arrange your desk, plan a walking meeting, or spend time working in a collaborative area.
Spaces and places that feature art offer the opportunity to see things in a different way. In addition to exposing our brains to a variety of textures and colours, it can help reduce our stress levels and boost mood.
Try: Adding some art to your walls, or taking a walk through one of UBC’s many free galleries on a break.
Go Play Outside
Natural outdoor green spaces provide all kinds of opportunities for physical activity, leading to better heart, bone and joint health.
Try: Taking your lunch outside or sitting on the grass to enjoy a coffee.
Did you know that UBC’s Happiness Project has been logging the places on campus where people feel the happiest? Check out the map or share where you feel the best at UBC.
This month as you move through campus, and your community, take a moment to notice the built and natural elements that positively impact your movements, moods, interactions and experiences.
It’s also a great excuse to enjoy the beautiful weather!
All my best,
Clowney, D. (2013). Biophilia as an environmental virtue. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 26(5), 999-1014.
Grinde, B., & Patil, G. G. (2009). Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6(9), 2332–2343.
Creating Wellbeing Through Physical Spaces, Healthy Campus Community, SFU
Huet, V. Literature review of art therapy-based interventions for work-related stress. Int. J. Art Ther. 20, 66–76 (2015).
Huss, E. & Sarid, O. Visually transforming artwork and guided imagery as a way to reduce work related stress: A quantitative pilot study. Arts Psychother. 41, 409–412 (2014).
Posted in Editorial, Mental Health, Miranda Massie, Physical Health | Tagged buildings, built environment, editorial, environment, health, Miranda Massie, natural environment, Nature, place, space, wellbeing | Leave a response
By Colin Hearne on June 3, 2015
This month we are featuring Social Psychology PhD candidate Ashley Whillans. Ashley was recently recognized as the lead author of a study focusing on how having a “time is money” attitude can be a barrier to acting in environmentally friendly ways. It struck a cord with us at Healthy UBC, and prompted an invitation to become the first Thriving Graduate Student!
Thriving Faculty exemplify the integration of health and wellbeing into classrooms, research, departments and communities.
What central challenges do you face in your role as a PhD student?
As a PhD student working in two highly productive research labs, the biggest challenges I face are related to deadlines. In research, there are often many speed-bumps. I am constantly trying to balance multiple deadlines, while keeping enough slack in my schedule to deal with delays and (of course!) to make time for friends, family, and fun (I’m getting married in August, so there has been a lot of fun the last few months!). I am always working on time management – i.e., figuring out how to maximize productivity, while minimizing hours spent at my computer.
Based on your experiences, can you describe the relationship between student mental health, and wellbeing and learning?
I am a first-generation university student. When I graduate with my PhD, I will have three more degrees than anyone in my family! In second year of undergrad, I transferred from Douglas College to UBC. I remember feeling overwhelmed: The classes were huge, the coursework was demanding, and I worked part-time to pay rent. I struggled to feel like I fit in. It wasn’t until I became involved outside of the classroom that I started to excel. Extracurricular involvement made me feel part of the university experience and gave me a place to belong. I can say first-hand that social connection can motivate students not only to learn in class, but also to learn from and explore all of the unique and exciting opportunities that university has to offer.
Do you implement any strategies to support student mental health and wellbeing in the classroom/lab?
I work with a lot of undergraduate research assistants: they are our lab superheroes! To support the mental health and well-being of the students that I work with, I try my best to implement two empirically based strategies: (1) Fostering social connection and (2) Discussing challenges.
(1) Social connections are important! Having quality social connections is one of the most important factors in determining well-being. Because lab work can be quite solitary, I try to foster connections by hosting sushi lunches and going out for adventurous meals. These activities help to build a sense of community and friendship. Then, if there is a problem or there is a stressful time of the semester, we all have a “lab family” to turn to. I am a huge fan of the social media site “Humans of New York,” and there was a recent post that very nicely sums up this strategy: “I want [my students] to know that I cared about them before there was a problem.”
(2) We often think that other people are doing better than we are. My own research with UBC Assistant Professor Frances Chen suggests that most students believe that their peers are more socially successful than they are, which negatively impacts belonging and well-being. These beliefs stem in part from the fact that people act happier in public than in private and because people do not readily talk about their negative experiences. In other words, from a distance, everyone’s life seems rosier than it actually is! Many students look up to their graduate student and faculty advisors—it is even easy for me to forget that professors are humans too! Thus, I feel it is my responsibility to let students know I am constantly in a process of trying and failing in all areas of my life— from running studies to trying to fit in a few hours to jog around block. Science and life aren’t always as perfect as they seem from the outside! By being honest, I hope to create an open environment where it is acceptable to talk about both our successes and our failures.
What strategies do you use in your own life, that help you thrive as PhD student?
When I’m stuck and I feel like I’m not making progress, I take a break. I grab a friend and stroll the gardens at UBC, go for coffee, or spend time giggling with colleagues over the latest cute thing on the internet. Small breaks are refreshing, and make “work mountain” easier to climb!
Are they any specific initiatives and/or research you are involved in that promote physical and mental health and wellbeing?
Psychology is a large department and it can sometimes be difficult for students to find their academic home. UBC Professor Michael Souza and I are currently exploring novel ways to increase student engagement among new majors. Specifically, we are assigning new psychology majors to small “cohorts” lead by senior students. These cohorts meet once per month to discuss anything and everything from study habits, to post-grad careers, to managing exam stress. Students also attend events throughout the year, hosted by our department like skill-building workshops, and meet-your-professor events. We are very excited to enroll 200-300 students next year in this program, in hopes of making our large department feel smaller and more connected.
In your role as a PhD Student, please describe your experience balancing work-life commitments. Is there a metaphor that depicts this relationship?
Work-life balance is about being honest with yourself and with those around you. By reaching out, being authentic, building connections and forming learning communities, work becomes less like work, and a lot more like a natural extension of life.
Ashley Whillans completed her BA (Hons.) and her MA at UBC. As a PhD candidate in the Social Psychology program, she works primary with Dr. Elizabeth Dunn & Dr. Frances Chen to study happiness, friendship formation, and health. Read Ashley’s article on UBC News here.
Posted in Colin Hearne, Mental Health, Physical Health, Spot Light, Thriving Faculty | Tagged behaviour, environment, graduate studies, Happiness, money, resilience, skills, Thriving faculty | Leave a response
By Miranda Massie on July 3, 2014
I have been in my role as health promotions coordinator at UBC for just under 16 months, and in this time, I have had the pleasure to meet and learn from some wonderful people from all across both campuses. My most profound realization to date has been a deeper understanding of just how interconnected personal health is with other aspects of our lives. Our overall state of wellbeing plays a key role in how we face each day and can affect, and be affected by everything from our physical environment, work, sleep habits to family demands and social connections.
With UBC being one of the provinces largest employers, I spend a great deal of time focuses on health in the workplace.. I strive to encourage and support individuals to be conscious of the effects that the working environment can have on health and to welcome the benefits that good health can have on productivity and self-esteem.
Canadians spend an average of 36.6 hours at work per week. This equates roughly to between 40% and 45% of our available weekday waking hours. With so much of our collective time being spent in the workplace, we have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to find ways to stay well.
Maintaining our health within a working environment can look different for each individual. Taking regular breaks or going outside for a walk might appeal to some. Bringing the outside in might work for others: Studies show that having pictures and photographs of nature in an office environment leads to reduced stress levels and more positive emotional states. It is also important to remember that a work environment does not just include our physical space but it also includes the work that we do and how we interact within that space.
Another great way to maintain a healthy work environment is to actively participate in career navigation. We all have the ability to thrive when we feel we are contributing and having our ideas heard. Being aware of career building opportunities and having the ability to pursue new challenges can lead to an increased sense of control over our work life. Though we may not always have the ability to dictate what our day will look like, we can be working towards our wellbeing by exploring new and exciting opportunities within our work environment. UBC offers several ways in which to do so.
In response to feedback received in the Workplace Experiences Survey in 2011, UBC has created a Career Navigation consultancy service aimed at supporting staff in discovering and designing opportunities for growth.
Have you heard of Leave for Change? Volunteer your professional skills to help others!
You can also explore leadership while giving back to the community through the UBC Community Leadership Program.
This summer, I invite you to reflect on your working environment and to try one new thing to make yourself or your work environment healthier.
For more information on UBC’s Career Navigation services, attend a FREE workshop on July 24, 2014.
All my best,
Heerwagen, J. (2000). Green buildings, organizational success and occupant productivity. Building Research & Information, 28(5/6), 353-367.
Robertson, P. (2013). Career guidance and public mental health. International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance, 13:2, pp 151-164.
Schein, E. (1996) Career anchors Revisited: Implications for career Development in the 21st century. The Academy of Management Executive 10:4, pp. 80-88.