Gratitude for, and Regret toward, Nature: Relationships to Proenvironmental Intent of University Students from Japan

Article excerpt

People have a wide range of feelings towards nature or natural objects. For example, they may express a variety of feelings, such as comfort or fear, toward forests, oceans, or wild animals. These feelings are known as general impressions of nature. In the present study, we focused on impressions of nature, including feelings of gratitude, indebtedness, and regret, and we examined these as possible predictors of proenvironmental intent and behaviors. We formed the following conceptual distinctions among the feelings of gratitude, indebtedness, and regret. Gratitude is defined as a joyful feeling toward the benefactor from receiving a benefit, indebtedness as a feeling of obligation to repay the benefactor, and regret as a feeling of sorrow or apology toward the benefactor.

In an analysis of the concept of gratitude, Roberts (2004) identified sufficient conditions for gratitude in terms of benefactor/recipient motives and benefits: A benevolent benefactor acts from a desire to help rather than a sense of duty, and the recipient receives a benefit and desires to express indebtedness and attachment to the benefactor. In the context of the present study, nature is the benefactor and people are the recipients. We adopt a broad definition of gratitude toward nature as people's positive feelings, including attachment, which are caused by the awareness that nature brings positive outcomes to them. However, we do not refer to benefactor motives in the definition, because this would require personification of the natural environment. Manifestations of gratitude or regret toward the environment are observed in various social rituals. For example, during harvest festivals in rural Japan, gratitude is expressed to the gods that are believed to influence the climate, soil, and general environmental conditions that produce good rice harvests. In the Loy Krathong festival in Thailand, people apologize to the water god for polluting rivers. In these rituals, people's feelings of gratitude or apology towards nature are reflected in ceremonial behaviors. Although affective or emotional responses to nature, such as empathy for the environment, have been shown to increase concern for environmental issues (e.g., Schultz, 2000), little information is available about their effect on proenvironmental intent, which can lead to the intention to enact responsible behaviors towards the natural environment.

Gratitude as a Moral Emotion

Gratitude has been regarded as a moral emotion that can lead to ethical or honorable behaviors (McCullough, Kilpatrick, Emmons, & Larson, 2001; Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). Some researchers have found positive relationships between feelings of gratitude and prosocial dispositions or prosocial behaviors (Bartlett & DeSteno, 2006; Tsang, 2006a).

These results are suggestive of a relationship between gratitude towards nature and proenvironmental intent and behaviors. Just as feelings of gratitude toward people and nature have common features, so too are proenvironmental intent and behavior conceptually compatible with prosocial intent and behavior. Prosocial behavior refers to "voluntary actions that are intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals" (Eisenberg & Mussen, 1989, p. 3). Applying this definition, proenvironmental behavior may be defined as voluntary actions that are intended to benefit nature or the natural environment in terms of its maintenance and growth. The definition includes behaviors that stem from self-interest and other motivations. These considerations together lead us to hypothesize that gratitude toward nature results in enhancement of proenvironmental intent and behaviors.

Gratitude, Regret, and Indebtedness

Roberts (2004) made a philosophical analysis of gratitude and suggested that the recipients' desire to express indebtedness to their benefactors is one of the sufficient conditions for the concept of gratitude. …