University News

Worlds of Well-Being: Why Where We Are Matters

by Irma Eloff, Ph.D., University of Pretoria, South Africa

This article is part of a series by well-being researchers around the world, featuring insights from their nation’s work in the well-being field.

Where we are influences our well-being.

Much has been written about the factors that influence our well-being such as building healthy relationships, finding meaning and purpose, and developing resilience. Less is known, however, about the relationship between our environment and our subjective well-being. For example, many studies have indicated that spending time in nature can improve our well-being. One recent study showed that people who had greater accessibility to and exposure to nature reported less depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as better general health and well-being. They also made fewer impulsive decisions in daily life, perhaps because they were less depressed, anxious, and stressed. Another study of almost 20,000 people found that people who spent at least two hours a week in nature were more likely to report better health and well-being.

The reality for most of us, however, is that time spent in nature is “time out” from our busy daily routines. Most people do not spend an entire working day (or studying day) being in nature or being even outdoors. So what can be done? What about the environments where we spend significant amounts of time every day? Can they also be constructed in a way that enhances well-being?

A recent study at my university — The University of Pretoria in South Africa — presented some interesting findings. The University of Pretoria is an urban residential university that was founded 111 years ago and serves a diverse student population of about 55,000, who come not only from South Africa but from many other African countries and several countries outside of Africa. Many of our students are the first member of their family to attend a university. We conducted a study recently that asked almost 2,500 students an open question: What supports your well-being at the University of Pretoria? The students surveyed came from all fields of study and across all undergraduate age groups on all the campuses of the university that enroll undergraduate students.

Overwhelmingly, the students referred to the quality of the learning environment as the factor that supports their well-being the most. Among the environmental factors that students said enhance the learning environment were the beauty of the campuses, the design of the lecture halls, the many outdoor spaces to relax in between lectures, and feeling safe on the campus.

The findings of this study highlight the importance of our physical environment to our well-being. We tend to focus largely on the “people” factors that can enhance well-being. The results of our study suggest that our physical environments can also enhance our well-being -– that  where you find yourself in the world is important to your well-being.

In 1913 Vernon Lee (whose real name was Violet Paget) published a remarkable book titled The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics. Since that time, the body of research exploring the interactions between human beings and their environments has been growing.

The results of our study provide evidence that the well-being of our students is influenced by the quality of the learning environment, which is influenced by the physical environment. These results suggest that we need a deeper inquiry into the relationship between subjective well-being and the physical world.


Eloff, I. & Guse, T.  2019.  Which factors support student wellbeing at university? ISQoL Member Research webinar:

Repke, M. A., Berry, M. S., Conway, L. G., 3rd, Metcalf, A., Hensen, R. M., & Phelan, C. (2018). How does nature exposure make people healthier?: Evidence for the role of impulsivity and expanded space perception. PloS one, 13(8), e0202246. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0202246

White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3

Irma Eloff, Ph.D., works in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.