Watching Nature Documentaries Can Produce “Real Happiness,” Finds a Study from the BBC and UC-Berkeley

Hol­ly­wood sci­ence fic­tion films imag­ine future humans in worlds that are no longer green, or nev­er were—from Soy­lent Green’s dying Earth to that of Inter­stel­lar. And from Soy­lent Green to Ad Astra, humans in the future expe­ri­ence plant and ani­mal life as sim­u­la­tions on a screen, in hyper­re­al pho­tog­ra­phy and video meant to paci­fy and com­fort. Maybe we live in that world already, to some extent, with apoc­a­lyp­tic films and sci­ence fic­tion express­ing a col­lec­tive mourn­ing for the extinc­tions brought on by cli­mate change.

“Over the course of my lifetime—I’m 46,” writes Wash­ing­ton Post art crit­ic Sebas­t­ian Smee, “the plan­et has lost more than half of its wildlife pop­u­la­tions, accord­ing to the World Wildlife Fund.” Sure­ly this brute fact explains the immense pop­u­lar­i­ty of high pro­duc­tion-val­ue nature doc­u­men­taries, the anti­dote to apoc­a­lyp­tic futur­ism. They have become “block­buster events,” argues Ed Yong at The Atlantic, with fan­doms as fierce as any.

Viewed “from the per­spec­tive of the future,” writes Smee, nature doc­u­men­taries “are great art. Maybe the great­est of our time.” But can view­ing film and pho­tographs of nature pro­duce in us the feel­ings of awe and won­der that poets, artists, and philoso­phers have described feel­ing in actu­al nature for cen­turies? BBC Earth, pro­duc­er of sev­er­al major block­buster nature doc­u­men­tary series, under­took some psy­cho­log­i­cal research to find out, part­ner­ing with researchers from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley.

The team exam­ined the effects of watch­ing the BBC’s Plan­et Earth II doc­u­men­tary series rel­a­tive to oth­er kinds of pro­grams. “It is a deep human intu­ition that view­ing nature and being in nature is good for the mind and body,” they write in the study, titled “Explor­ing the Emo­tion­al State of ‘Real Hap­pi­ness.’” (Socio­bi­ol­o­gist E.O. Wil­son coined the term “bio­phil­ia” to describe the evolved pref­er­ence for nat­ur­al beau­ty.) Does screen­time equal phys­i­cal time spent out­doors? Not exact­ly, but nature doc­u­men­taries can low­er stress lev­els and, yes, pro­duce feel­ings of “real hap­pi­ness.”

There have been sev­er­al pre­vi­ous such stud­ies. The authors cite one in which a few min­utes of the orig­i­nal series Plan­et Earth “led peo­ple, com­pared to con­trol par­tic­i­pants, to feel 45.6% more awe and 31.4% more grat­i­tude, but no shifts in feel­ings of neg­a­tive emo­tions such as fear and sad­ness.” The Plan­et Earth II study may be the largest of its kind, with almost 3,500 par­tic­i­pants in the U.S., around a thou­sand in the U.K., India, and Aus­tralia, each, and around 500 in both South Africa and Sin­ga­pore for a total of approx­i­mate­ly 7,500 view­ers.

Par­tic­i­pants across a range of age groups, from 16 to 55 and over, were shown short clips of a vari­ety of TV pro­grams, includ­ing clips from Plan­et Earth II. They were sur­veyed on an array of emo­tion­al respons­es before and after each view­ing. The study also mea­sured stress lev­els using the Per­ceived Stress Scale (PSS), and used a facial map­ping tech­nol­o­gy called CrowdE­mo­tion to track phys­i­cal respons­es. The researchers aggre­gat­ed the data and con­trolled for pop­u­la­tion size in each coun­try.

The find­ings are fas­ci­nat­ing. Across the scale, Plan­et Earth II clips gen­er­at­ed more feel­ings of hap­pi­ness and awe, with clips from news and enter­tain­ment shows caus­ing more fear. In most of the study’s mea­sures, these good feel­ings peaked high­est at the low­er demo­graph­ic age range of 16–24. Younger view­ers showed greater pos­i­tive emo­tion­al respons­es in facial map­ping and sur­vey data, a fact con­sis­tent with BBC rat­ings data show­ing that 16–34 year-olds make up around 41% of the audi­ence share for Plan­et Earth II.

“This younger group,” note the authors, “was more like­ly to expe­ri­ence sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive shifts in emo­tion.” They also start­ed out, before view­ing the clips, with sig­nif­i­cant­ly more envi­ron­men­tal anx­i­ety, scor­ing high­ly on the stress scale. 71% described them­selves as “extreme­ly wor­ried about the state of the world’s envi­ron­ment and what it will mean for my future.” A small­er per­cent­age showed the low­est lev­el of agree­ment with the state­ment “I reg­u­lar­ly get out­side and enjoy spend­ing time with nature.”

For near­ly all of the study’s view­ers, nature doc­u­men­taries seemed to pro­duce at least fleet­ing feel­ings of “real hap­pi­ness.” For many, they may also be a way of coun­ter­ing fears of the future, and com­pen­sat­ing in advance for a loss of the nat­ur­al beau­ty that remains. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the study did not mea­sure the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants who viewed Plan­et Earth II and oth­er “block­buster” nature doc­u­men­taries as a call to action against envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion. Maybe that’s a sub­ject for anoth­er study. Read the full Plan­et Earth II study results here. And if you’re feel­ing stressed, watch thir­ty min­utes of “Visu­al Sound­scapes,” pre­sent­ed by Plan­et Earth II, above.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Japan­ese Prac­tice of “For­est Bathing”—Or Just Hang­ing Out in the Woods—Can Low­er Stress Lev­els and Fight Dis­ease

Becom­ing: A Short Time­lapse Film Shows a Sin­gle Cell Mor­ph­ing Into a Com­plete, Com­plex Liv­ing Organ­ism

Do Octopi Dream? An Aston­ish­ing Nature Doc­u­men­tary Sug­gests They Do

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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