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Creative Mornings takes on Happiness

By Ryan Saxby Hill on January 31, 2013

This Friday, Creative Mornings is taking on the issue of happiness. John Zelenski from Carleton University is the director of the happiness lab, a facility devoted to testing what makes us happy and how we can control and manage our happiness. If Ottawa’s long (and cold) winter is getting you down, this morning lecture might be just what you need. We sent a few questions over to Zelenski to find out more about his work and his lab.

Apartment613: Can you explain the link between nature and happiness? Does this bode well for a city like Ottawa, with easy access to natural environments?

John Zelenski: Ottawa provides a nice opportunity to experience nature with its urban green spaces and close proximity to wild areas. Of course, people also need to choose to take advantage of these things. On average, nature tends to promote happiness. A variety of studies show that nature (and sometimes even representations of nature like pictures or videos) can improve mood in the short term. For example, we’ve found substantial mood boosts after only brief walks in urban nature (e.g., along the Rideau Canal). These temporary mood benefits are nice, but it takes a large collection of them to translate into a broader sense of happiness. However, even at this level, we observe an association between happiness and people’s subjective connection with nature. People who feel connected to nature and spend more time in nature also tell us that they are happier.

Apartment613: I think that many people in Ottawa tend to blame the long and cold winter for their seasonal blues. Do you think that Ottawans have challenges in maintaining our happiness because of our winter?

JZ: The winter can pose challenges. For example, having fewer hours of daytime light in northern locations is associated with higher rates of seasonal depression. Harsh weather can also keep people indoors and away from the benefits of nature. That said, Ottawa also has great opportunities to get outdoors during the winter, e.g., skating, skiing, snowshoeing…

Apartment613: What exactly do you do in a happiness lab? What does the lab look like?

JZ: We conduct studies on happiness, and these can take many forms. For example, we’re particularly interested in nature and people’s connection to it. Another major interest is sociability, the trait of extraversion, and how it plays out ‘in the moment’. (Contrary to many intuitions, almost everyone enjoys acting extraverted over short periods of time.)

The lab space is fairly unspectacular. We have a variety of offices and rooms that allow for some versatility in creating experiential environments. For example, we might facilitate a group discussion, show videos to induce a particular mood, stage an opportunity for someone to help another, etc. Our research also takes us out of the physical space, for example, when we take research participants out on walks in the urban nature that surrounds Carleton, or reach out to people around the globe via the internet. The physical space is much less important than the creativity my team of students and collaborators bring to it.

Apartment613: What are you hoping people take away from your event Friday with Creative Mornings? Any happiness tips you are hoping to pass on?

JZ: On Friday, I’ll be focusing on our research linking nature with happiness. We are exploring the idea that by facilitating contact with nature, we might make people both happier and more inclined to engage in environmentally sustainable behaviours — a ‘happy path to sustainability’. This work is ongoing, but it is already very clear that one thing people can do to boost their mood and restore their mental energy is to take a brief walk in nature. So, I hope people will consider the big ideas, but also that this concrete tip will be helpful in their daily lives.

Creative Mornings starts with breakfast tomorrow morning at 8am. The event takes place at Art Is In bakery at City Centre Plaza. All the details are online at the Creative Mornings eventbrite.