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A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884. (Photo: Public Domain)

Be a Better Person: Take a Walk in the Park

• July 21, 2014 • 4:00 AM

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884. (Photo: Public Domain)

New research from France finds strangers are more helpful if they’ve just strolled through a natural environment.

Plenty of research has suggested immersing yourself in nature has significant mental and physical health benefits. But can it also make you a better person? New research from France suggests it just might.

In two experiments, pedestrians who had just strolled through a beautiful park were more likely to come to the aid or a stranger who had just dropped a glove. Writing in the journal Environment and Behavior, Nicolas Guéguen and Jordy Stefan of the University of Bretagne-Sud refer to this as “green altruism.”

Their first experiment featured 318 men and 312 women between the ages of 25 and 50, all of whom were walking alone in a French resort town. The interaction with them occurred at the entrance to a park containing several hundred trees, 30,000 floral ground plants, and an 18th-century fountain. Approximately half the participants were heading into the park, while the others were just emerging from it.

In two experiments, pedestrians who had just strolled through a beautiful park were more likely to come to the aid or a stranger who had just dropped a glove.

A research assistant (one of three men or women in their early 20s) walked just ahead of each unwitting study participant and “accidentally” dropped a glove from his or her tote bag. If the person in question did not point out what had happened within 10 seconds, the assistant paused, looked in the bag, and then “spotted” and retrieved the glove from the sidewalk.

Not surprisingly, women were more likely than men to be of assistance, and the female research assistants were more likely to receive help than their male counterparts. But the key finding was that 71.9 percent of people who had just emerged from the park warned the assistant of the dropped glove, compared to 55.6 percent of those who were entering the park.

This “seems to show that a short immersion in a natural environment is sufficient to elicit individual altruism toward fellow humans,” the researchers write.

Guéguen and Stefan then repeated the experiment, recording the responses of 200 men and 200 women. This time around, after the person did or did not help, they were approached by another assistant who asked them to describe their current mood on a scale of one to eight.

Once again, those who had emerged from the park were more likely to help. They also reported being in a better mood than their counterparts who had yet to enter the park—a positive frame of mind that apparently inspired them to help a stranger.

While this effect could very well be short-lived, the researchers note that it kicked in quite quickly. Walking through the park took less than one minute on average, but it appears that short immersion in a natural setting was sufficient to lighten moods and soften hearts.

Who knew those characters in Georges Seurat’s famous painting were so kind?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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