Rejoice, Nature-Haters — Cities Can Be Soothing, Too

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Picture this: You’re spending the weekend out of the city communing with nature. Let’s say you’re in a tent somewhere in the woods, surrounded by trees and a distinct lack of humans. It’s still; it’s quiet. It’s peaceful. You’re finally alone with your thoughts, nothing else to distract you. Away from all the noise and the buzz, you can feel yourself becoming rejuvenated.

Or maybe it’s more like this: You’re spending the weekend in a tent somewhere in the woods, surrounded by trees and a distinct lack of humans. It’s still; it’s quiet. It’s maddening. You’re stuck with only your thoughts, nothing else to occupy your mind. Away from all the noise and the buzz, you can feel yourself growing ever more anxious.

When we talk about relaxing getaways, we often invoke the idea of tranquility: someplace calm, maybe a little isolated, with a slower pace and a lot less crowding. But a new study highlighted this week by Quartz suggests that relaxing is in the eye of the beholder — and that for the more neurotic among us, peace and quiet may actually be more stressful than hustle and bustle.

In the study, set to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers recruited 455 participants, who completed personality tests and ran through a series of tasks designed to mentally exhaust them. As Quartz reported:

Participants were given a thought-suppression test (they were told not to think of a white bear), which used up self-control, and also completed a neuroticism test. Participants were then given anagrams to solve of words that related to either nature or of [sic] urban environments. Lastly, they were given an unsolvable anagram. How long each participant spent trying to complete the unsolvable anagram was taken as a measure of self-control, and researchers found that neurotic people who were given urban-related anagrams showed greater self control than those given natural words.

Urban environments, in other words, were less mentally taxing for people with a very specific personality profile — a finding that flies in the face of the one-size-fits-all idea of nature as replenishing. “If you tend to be a worrier (relatively high on the neuroticism scale), you might find your thinking abilities more refreshed in a frenetic, urban environment rather than a tranquil, natural one,” the study authors wrote. “We argue that such a person would be better off taking a walk through a busy, downtown [area] rather than a quiet park to restore their cognitive abilities.”

Of course, there’s a difference between taking a walk to feel refreshed and deciding where to go on vacation; willpower depletion in the lab doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of pleasure out in a real-life setting, and even a neurotic person may enjoy taking a trip to the beach or hiking up a mountain. Still, people of all personality types can feel vindicated about one very important thing: It’s okay to hate camping. Science gives you permission.