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A Blow to Well-Being? Nature Words Disappearing from Books, Films and Songs
June 27, 2017

Photo by Biletskiy_Evgeniy via iStock

As technology becomes increasingly ingrained in everyday life, scholars have begun wondering what’s being lost as a result. 

A new analysis from the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the London Business School suggests that our closest cultural artifacts – books, films, songs – may hold the answer. In a paper recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the team discovered a steady decrease in works of music, literature and film referencing the natural world.

The findings are a part of a larger conversation about humans’ relationship with their environment – a growing body of research links exposure to the natural world with higher levels of well-being. For example, one study showed that hospital patients recover better after surgery if their rooms have a view of flowers and trees. Office spaces that have natural views are linked to workers who are more buffered from work strain. Our exposure to nature, whether it’s looking at a painting or taking a lunchtime walk through a park, can result in faster stress recovery, improved cognitive functioning, increased prosocial behaviors and better mental health.

Are works with heavy references to the natural world a thing of the past?​
1933 Little House On The Prairie

By Laura Ingalls Wilder (scan from the Internet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pelin Kesebir

“When we look at things that improve well-being, I think nature should be a well-being prescription for everybody,” says Pelin Kesebir at the Center for Healthy Minds, who was co-author on the analysis. “This decline implies foregone physical and psychological benefits from our engagement with nature because cultural products like books and movies are the exact agents of socialization that can evoke curiosity, respect and concern for the natural world."

When Kesebir and her twin sister, Selin Kesebir, an Assistant Professor at the London Business School, used the Google tool “Ngram Viewer” to search for nature words like “tree,” “sun” and “cloud,” they noticed that the use of these nature-related words peaked in the 1950s and then steadily declined soon after. Upon being intrigued by this initial observation, the two began systematically exploring the frequency of nature words in books, song lyrics and film storylines.

“When we look at things that improve well-being, I think nature should be a well-being prescription for everybody”

Pelin Kesebir

They examined categories of nature words, including general terms to describe landscapes and weather (e.g., forest, lightning) as well as bird, tree and flower names (e.g., hummingbird, cedar, begonia). In order to compare nature-related words to words about the human-made environment, they searched a set of words like “building,” “ceiling,” “door,” “road” and “window.” 

Across movies, music and books, the use of nature words declined dramatically since the 1950s, with mentions of nature-related words in song lyrics showing the greatest decline. Human-made environment words, in contrast, did not show any consistent pattern over the same period.

Based on the results of their research, the duo suggests the growing human-nature disconnect is most likely due to the proliferation of indoors and virtual recreation options. Technologies such as TV, video games and computers became increasingly more entrenched in American life after World War II, encouraging people of all ages to spend more time indoors and less time exploring nature. 

"It seems that these technologies have largely replaced nature as a source of joy and recreation."

Selin Kesebir
Selin Kesebir

“It seems that these technologies have largely replaced nature as a source of joy and recreation,” Selin Kesebir says.

The disappearance of nature words not only reflects the collective consciousness, but it also holds the potential to shape future generations. The Kesebirs believe that movies, books, and songs without nature words will only exacerbate the disconnection between humans and nature by diminishing interest in and appreciation of nature. If no one is writing, singing or making movies about nature, “Who or what will inspire the next generation of children to become environmentalists? How will kids learn about the importance of nature and the environment?” they ask.

“There is a cost to not being connected to nature. There is a physical cost, and there is a psychological cost. And there’s a huge cost to our planet,” Pelin Kesebir says. “It is crucial to realize the costs and to do something about it. Do one thing to connect yourself and especially your children to nature.”

She says it’s the simple things that can connect us to nature, not necessarily the huge feats like hiking the Appalachian Trail. A growing connection can be nurtured by simply stopping and listening to the birds chirping, or noticing the clouds above, or taking a walk through a park.

-Brita Larson