Donna McMillan’s research explores the psychological significance of the natural world, psychological well-being, and personality.

The Psychological Significance of the Natural World

Yosemite National Park

Because of our evolutionary heritage and experience, humans have an innate need and propensity to affiliate with life processes and with the natural world, a proposal researchers have termed the biophilia hypothesis.  My research is inspired to some degree by this thesis.  I investigate the meanings that nature holds for people and the psychological needs that are fulfilled in our interactions with the rest of the natural world. This research falls under the broad rubric of Environmental Psychology or the more specific subfield, Conservation Psychology, “the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature” (Saunders, 2003). My research suggests that the natural world is a particularly potent stimulus; that experience in nature can positively affect some of our most important psychological needs such as autonomy, relatedness, self-esteem, competence, physical thriving, and even self-actualization. Our studies suggest that experience in the natural world (when compared with experience in built or more urban settings) can be associated with increased positive affect; increased positive connection with others; heightened pleasurable sensory stimulation; more playful engagement; heightened spirituality; more serenity, peace, contemplation, gratitude, and contentment; less busyness, and less acquisitiveness.

Psychological Well-Being and Personality

Much of the research discussed above relates to psychological well-being. Our findings have led me to explore questions concerning American lifestyles characterized by busyness and a materialistic value orientation (i.e., a high desire for acquisition, characterized by pursuit of extrinsic goals such as money, possession, appearance, and status). Evidence is fast accumulating that materialistic value orientations are associated with a number of negative psychological outcomes as well negative environmental outcomes.  In conjunction with that research, I study the relationship of intrinsic motivation and sense of meaning to well-being.


Coding Manual for Stories of Natural and Built Scenes