“Greenery (or Even Photos of Trees) Can Make Us Happier” proclaims the headline of a NYT article by Gretchen Reynolds describing a recent study of the effects of seeing photos of the natural world. Looking at her summary and at the study itself, I noticed that the research isn’t so much about happiness as it is about handling stress.

A previous study had found that research participants who took a walk through a parkland had less anxiety and performed better on a test of working memory than did participants who walked along a busy street. Were the benefits due to the greenery itself or other elements of the parkland walk (more sunlight, fewer noxious fumes, other strollers who were themselves relaxed), though? The study that Reynolds describes, conducted by Dutch researcher Magdalena van den Berg and colleagues. is one of several that provide controlled exposure to natural phenomena in order to analyze the various possible effects nature has on us. This study controlled what research participants experienced by showing them pictures of “urban settings with ample greenery.” These settings were fairly ordinary–no soaring mountains or splendid waterfalls. There was a control condition in which participants viewed photos of urban scenes with little or no greenery. Here are examples of the greenery and non-greenery pictures:

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

Image from Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Dec; 12(12)

After viewing either greenery or city scenes, participants took an arithmetic test designed to be stressful. The researchers state that “the difficulty of the arithmetic problems was automatically adapted to the user performance to be just beyond the individual’s capacity….” Just beyond our capacity–isn’t that typical of how life is? Oy vey! In addition, while solving problems participants were assaulted by a noxious noise and received false feedback indicating that they were performing more poorly than had previous test takers. After taking the test, participants were again shown one or the other set of photos.

The researchers included measures of both sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activity. The sympathetic nervous system increases bodily activation, releasing adrenaline and increasing heart rate and blood pressure to produce the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “rest and digest” functions, promoting the activity of the intestines and glands but slowing heart rate and reducing other components of bodily arousal. Pictures of natural scenes  more than pictures of urban scenes resulted in greater recovery via activating the parasympathetic nervous system.  There were no differences when it came to the sympathetic nervous system measure.

The study authors describe recovery from stress as a process of restoration, defined as a “return to unaffected affective, cognitive and psychophysiological functioning.” In this study, viewing mundane pictures of trees, grass, and shrubbery aided with restoration. Most of us have significant stress and need to be restored. van den Berg recommends we accomplish this by visiting nature or looking outside to see greenery. Reynolds adds that, if you can’t see the real thing, you can always “set your screen saver to show trees.”

Reading the study, I thought about how much nature I encounter on a regular basis. Quite a bit, it turns out. The house where I live has grass, shrubs, flowers, and a small wooded area. Do I actually pay attention to these things, though? I admit that when I walk out the door I’m often so focused on where I’m going that I ignore what’s around me. Spring flowers were blooming for days before I happened to notice them. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings, particularly the greenery that’s all about.

The last few weeks have actually been great in that respect. I’m putting in a small garden, and even I can’t ignore the trees and grass (and weeds!) around me when I’m out digging in the dirt. My sister and brother-in-law recently took my 90-year-old mom to a local nature center and I tagged along. An hour and a half walking in the woods and wetlands was a mega-dose of nature! I certainly felt restored afterwards and was in a particularly good mood. Maybe Reynolds is right; greenery doesn’t just aid in recovery from stress, it evokes happiness.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.

My mom and sister by the wetlands.


I remember when the first McDonalds opened in my hometown. There wasn’t any seating, just a walk-up window. The burgers cost 15 cents, which was a bargain even in the 1960s. More McDonalds opened, and they eventually had seating and a more extensive menu. Burger King, Arbys, and Wendys soon followed. Fast-food culture has been criticized both for the quality of the food and the hurried lifestyle it represents. At least fast-food restaurants served meals, though. We used to sit down three times a day to eat, but many of us don’t manage that any more. We eat on the run, and often what we are eating are snacks rather than meals.

A recent Associated Press article by Candice Choi documents the decline of meals. Food industry experts reportedly state that “Snacks now account for half of all eating occasions, with breakfast and lunch in particular becoming ‘snackified’…”  According to Marcel Nahm, an executive with Hershey, “People are snacking more and more, sometimes instead of meals, sometimes with meals, and sometimes in between meals.”  Hershey and other purveyors of packaged, processed foods are seeking to take advantage of this trend. Hershey offers snack mixes, Tyson offers packs of cut-up chicken, and Kellogg’s offers To Go shakes and cereal pouches.

Kellogg's to goThese products and others marketed as snacks are designed for convenience. Too much trouble to get out meat, mustard, lettuce, and bread to make a sandwich? Just open a meat pouch and snack away. The AP article doesn’t mention it, but the move to greater snacking seems a form of “life hack.” According to Wikipedia, a life hack is “any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.” The less time spent on meal preparation or consumption, the more time available to get things done.

Of course, wanting to hack food in particular or hack life in general is based on a singular view of what life is about. Giving up the pleasures and benefits of eating regular meals only makes sense if productivity is more important than those pleasures and benefits. Is getting as much done as we possibly can really what life is about? The gains that shortcuts like snacking provide are costly to our health and our emotional well-being. They also are costly to our relationships, since food is about relationships, starting the parent-infant bond at feeding time and including the family meal, formal dinners, and lunch with friends.

Of course, social trends that reach extremes are usually met with some sort of backlash. Snackers/food hackers are counterbalanced by foodies who devote considerable time and effort to rituals of food selection, preparation, and consumption. Snackers devote little thought to what they eat; foodies think about it all the time. Snackers satisfy momentary cravings; foodies plan far in advance where and what they’ll eat. Snackers eat in private; foodies dine with others or use social media to share their food choices.

But foodies, too, have a singular view of what human life is about. Foodies aren’t just trying to eat healthily and save the planet; they are also interested in food as experience and see life as a venue for maximizing sensory and emotional pleasures. As such, at their worse they are prone to the vices of the gourmet–snobbery, waste, and priggishness.

Rather than hacking food or making it the focus of life, I try to take a middle way. I’ll occasionally snack on nuts or a piece of fruit to tide me over, but always manage to eat three meals a day. I learn enough about food that I can eat healthily, but don’t spent a lot of time on food or nutrition sites. I eat alone sometimes, and sometimes with others. I’ve never posted a picture of a meal on social media. I think there are lots of people like me. We don’t go by a catchy name like food hackers or foodies, but I’d like to think that we have a more sensible attitude toward food than either of those groups. So snackers, give up your unhealthy ways, and foodies, give up your obsessions! Join us in the broad and anonymous center! Up with gastronomical moderation!

I previously discussed Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, the happiness which accompanies the good life and is different from pleasure (hedonia).  A psychologist who has paid considerable attention to the distinction between the two is Alan S. Waterman, who is on the faculty of the College of New Jersey.  I ran across a comment by him in the September, 2007 American Psychologist (pages 612-613).  His comment is in response to an article on the hedonic treadmill, which is the theory that we humans have a set point of happiness to which we revert.  Per the theory, our happiness isn’t permanently enhanced if a winning lottery ticket suddenly makes us rich or the girl (or guy) of our dreams consents to marry us.  Similarly, we don’t experience lasting sadness from having our house burn down or being diagnosed with malaria.  After a blip up or down in our degree of personal satisfaction, we will soon revert to our set point and be no more or less happy than we were to start out.


Waterman thinks that the hedonic treadmill doesn’t apply well to eudaimonia.  He claims that there is a separate eudaimonic treadmill, which can become a eudaimonic staircase, whereas the hedonic treadmill always stays a treadmill.  I’ll explain what he means after I discuss his definition of eudaimonia.


Waterman claims that the good life that eudaimonia accompanies is “excellence in the pursuit of fulfillment of personal potentials in ways that further an individual’s purposes in living.”  That’s not the same as Aristotle’s concept, because the element of virtue is lacking.  Would I experience eudaimonia if I managed to fulfill my potential to dominate and humiliate others whenever I had the chance?   If that was my goal in life and I got really good at it, I’ve met Waterman’s criterion, but I sure haven’t satisfied Aristotle’s.


Despite the problem with his definition, Waterman’s argument about the treadmill is interesting.  He relates the achievements of eudiamonia to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow. Flow occurs when the challenges of an activity are closely matched to one’s level of ability.  Thus, when I started studying Biblical Greek last fall, I found the first set of translation exercises were somewhat beyond my capacity, but after a little practice my ability matched the exercises and I experienced flow.  According to Waterman, at that point I was also experiencing an enhanced sense of eudaimonia.  The state didn’t last, though, because eventually my skill level exceeded the demands made by that set of exercises, and what once was challenging became boring.  That’s the eudaimonic treadmill; I reverted to my previous level of well-being. 


However, I didn’t have to stay in a eudaimonic fixed state.  I could and did increase the level of challenge by going to a harder set of exercises.  I thus restored a sense of flow and again enhanced my sense of eudaimonia.  The process can be ongoing; the person always seeks new challenges and thereby achieves more and more of his or her potential.  This, says Waterman, is the eudaimonic staircase.



Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?

Eudiamonic? Hedonic? Or just wooden?


Though I’m fascinated by the argument, I have some questions.  First, returning to the difference between Waterman and Aristotle, do all forms of flow qualify?  If I continually enhance my personal potential to be a superior auto thief or street fighter, am I just as likely to experience eudaimonia as if I’m enhancing my potential for generosity or compassion?  Some ways of fulfilling my potential don’t seem advisable to pursue, even if they make me happy.  Second, why can’t someone use the same procedure with hedonia as Waterman does with eudaimonia, that is, seek ever greater pleasures and thus turn the hedonic treadmill into a hedonic staircase?  Waterman seems to think that this procedure works only for eudiamonia, but he doesn’t give any reason why it would work in the one case but not in the other.   The article to which he was responding (and which I previously discussed here) actually argues that the hedonic treadmill isn’t universal and there are ways to increase one’s hedonia.  Even if Waterman is wrong and always raising the bar works just as well with hedonia as with eudaimonia, the prospect of living in a society in which everyone is constantly seeking more pleasure doesn’t seem nearly as appealing as does a society in which everyone is seeking eudaimonia via striving for excellence.  Faced with two staircases to happiness, society may be better off if people head up the eudiamonic one.        

Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?   Though quite a few philosophers have considered happiness as the goal of human existence, relatively few thought that maximizing happiness is the same thing as maximizing pleasure.  Epicurus and his followers did try to achieve happiness through pleasure, but, as I’ve discussed earlier, to him pleasure meant not the satisfactions of eating, drinking, and sex, but an absence of pain and disturbance (call it the ‘peace and quiet’ view of happiness).   Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham tried to quantify the amount of pleasure that people experience, and proposed that society seek to bring about the maximum amount of pleasure for all people considered together.  His formulation has been widely criticized for regarding all pleasures as equal.  Even if the respective amounts of pleasure could be shown to be equivalent, does that mean that a weekend spent watching football and eating junk food is just as good as a weekend reading The Brothers Karamazov, serving soup to the homeless, and attending religious services?  (Some, of course, would say it’s better, but still pleasure and goodness aren’t being considered as equals.)

Though psychologists have been writing quite a bit about happiness over the past several years, most of them don’t consider how it relates to pleasure.  One exception is Martin Seligman.  In his book Authentic Happiness, he considers pleasure under the chapter heading “Happiness in the Present.”  He suggests some ways of enhancing pleasurable experiences, but pleasure has only a limited role to play in his program for increasing happiness.  He writes as follows:

“Despite the delights they so reliably bring, however, it is not easy to build your life around the bodily pleasures, for they are all just momentary.  The fade very rapidly once the external stimulus disappears, and we become accustomed to them very readily (“habituation”), often requiring bigger doses to deliver the same kick as originally.  It is only the first taste of French vanilla ice cream, the first wisp of Shalimar, and the first few seconds of warmth form the blazing fire that gives you a buzz.  Unless you space these encounters out abstemiously, these pleasures are enormously diminished.”  pp 103-104.    

Seligman’s perspective seems balanced; pleasure doesn’t make one happy, but it can contribute to happiness.  As he mentions, spacing out pleasures does help us not habituate to them.  Take today, for example.  It snowed in Fayetteville starting sometime early this morning and continuing until early afternoon.  I’ve loved looking out on the fresh powdering of snow and walking outside as the flakes spun around my head.  I even enjoyed driving in it.  Earlier this winter, I spent the better part of a week with family in Michigan.  It had snowed virtually every day in December, and everyone was habituated to it (that is, they were sick to death of it).  Snow is so much better if it only visits just once or twice a year!

Beautiful But Unappreciated Michigan Snow

Beautiful But Unappreciated Michigan Snow


Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, written in 1931, presents a future in which everyone (well, almost everyone) is happy.  Five hundred plus years from now earth is ruled by ten World Controllers, the executives of the World State.  Stability has been achieved via control of reproduction, psychological conditioning, and careful management of information.  Members of each of the five castes are trained and indoctrinated from before birth to engage in only those activities appropriate to their caste.  Science has been whittled down to technology, and the arts have been replaced with propaganda disguised as entertainment.  Actions that threaten the stability of the existing order result in warnings, and, absent improvement, in exile.

None of this sounds felicitous to we early twenty-first century Westerners, who have  been conditioned to value not stability but freedom and independence.  Still, the World State has apparently achieved its goal of making people happy.   Everyone is given work appropriate to his or her abilities.  There is an abundance of material goods and plenty of diversions, from Obstacle Golf to the feelys (like movies, only tactual as well as visual).   Everyone enjoys the pleasures of constant consumption—clothes, travel, sport, and entertainment.  No one ever has to wait for more than a short time before his or her desires (especially sexual desires) are gratified.  Whenever a person is  troubled, he or she takes a dose of soma,  a drug that banishes all unhappiness.   Mustapha Mond (one of the World Controllers and a defender of the existing order) describes soma as having “All of the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” (p. 36, Bantam Classic Edition)  

To make certain that happiness reigns, every imaginable problem has been eliminated or controlled. Unpleasant relationships with one’s parents can’t occur if there are no parents; reproduction takes place in the laboratory, gestation occurs in a bottle, and children are raised in conditioning centers.  Marital problems can’t occur since there is no marriage; everyone is promiscuous, and attachment to a member of the opposite sex is frowned on as antisocial.  The twin plagues of decrepitude and death have been tamed, the first by eliminating all physiological signs of age so that even sexagenarians about to die “had the appearance of childish girls,” the second by training:

“Death conditioning begins at eighteen months.  Every tot spends two mornings a week in a Hospital for the Dying.  All the best toys are kept there, and they get chocolate cream on death days.  They learn to take dying as a matter of course.” (p. 110)

All of this social engineering is in the service of happiness, which in turn is in the service of stability.  The aim is to make everyone prefer those things that contribute to  the established order.  As the Director of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center puts it, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue—liking what you’ve got to do.  All conditioning aims at that:  making people like their unescapable social destiny.” (p. 10)

So, if what people want is happiness, wouldn’t this be a perfect society?  To Huxley, the happiness comes at too great a cost.  That cost is evident in a conversation between Mustapha Mond and the Savage, who, having grown up on a reservation in New Mexico, is an outsider critical of the current order.  The Savage asks, why is Shakespeare outlawed?  He’s so much better than the feelys.  Mond argues, “You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art.  We’ve sacrificed the art.” (p. 150)  The same goes for science:  “Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.” (p. 153)  And then there is religion: “God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness.  You must make your choice.  Our civilization has chosen machinery and medicine and happiness.”  (p. 159)  Besides, who needs the consolations that God provides if there is lifelong youth and prosperity?

The type of happiness achieved by the World State is obviously shallow, consisting entirely of  enjoyable moods and frequent pleasures.  For Huxley, not only is this happiness not worth the loss of art, science, and religion, it also isn’t worth the loss of freedom.  At one point, the Savage interrupts distribution of soma to a group of Deltas (the next-to-lowest caste), trying to convince them to stop drugging themselves and become free instead.  They stare at him dumbly, then charge him when he has the audacity to throw boxes of soma out the window.

Though among Americans freedom may surpass happiness as a cultural icon, plenty of us, like the Deltas, enslave ourselves to whatever we think will make us happy.  I found the Delta’s lack of maturity more troubling.  Exasperated by their resistance, the Savage asks, “Do you like being babies?”  And it’s not just the Deltas but everyone who is a baby.  Free of commitments, failures, or concern over mortality, the new worlders seek only childish pleasure.  The Savage encounters immaturity even in a ward for the dying:

“Faces still fresh and unwithered (for senility galloped so hard that it had no time to age the cheeks—only the heart and brain) turned as they passed.  Their progress was followed by the blank incurious eyes of second infancy.  The Savage shuddered as he looked.” (p. 135)

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians.  “When I became an adult, I put away childish things.”  There seems little to recommend a happiness that never achieves adulthood.