Chances are if you’re a college student, the answer to that question is yes. You’ve probably tried many methods of reducing stress, to no avail. But if you venture out into Polk Place any time of the day, you’re bound to see many other students trying to escape their stressors by relaxing on the grass. When you look across the sea of faces sitting out on the quad, you’ll see smiles and laughter, things you most likely wouldn’t see among the faces of those studying or spending time in places such as the library. Could this contentment be due just to the fact that they’re in Polk Place?
In a location where stress is prevalent, I figured that UNC’s campus would be a good location to conduct this ethnography. The idea of being able to destress by simply going outside may have scientific validity, and in a time and space where stress relief is so incredibly sought after, this is significant. I wanted to study Polk Place to determine whether it truly was a space for stress reduction and mood improvement. What I discovered from my interviews and other research was that occupying Polk Place does indeed provide benefits toward one’s stress level and overall mood. This is due to a number of factors, including simple exposure to an outdoor atmosphere, performing activities outside, and a perceived decrease in personal space boundaries.
Time-lapsed video of Polk Place in spring
How Was It Done?
To conduct this ethnography, I observed Polk Place at three different times of day, 11am, 1pm, and 6pm. This was to ensure that time did not have an effect on my observations. Each observation was approximately thirty minutes, in which I recorded every behavior I noticed and categorized them into groups based on patterns that I had recognized. Later, I transformed these categories into potential research questions. During the observation periods, I sat on the outskirts of the quad, simply writing down my observations as I made them. This was not atypical, as many other students were working, therefore I did not have an impact on the environment. In addition to my observations, I conducted five interviews with individuals on the quad. This was to supplement my observations by aiding me in better understanding particular patterns of behavior in Polk Place.
To many individuals, an outdoor location such as Polk Place can provide a space for stress relief and clarity. The quad is considered one of the most peaceful locations on campus (personal communications, November 2, 2016). It’s a quiet environment for the most part, that encourages relaxation and contemplation. “I come here when I need to clear my head”, says a male student I interviewed (personal communications, October 28, 2016). When asked if they feel more comfortable doing their schoolwork on the quad or in the library, one respondent answered, “I definitely feel more comfortable out here, there’s just something about being in the fresh air that I like” (personal communications, November 2, 2016).
The idea of de-stressing by venturing outside has been around for longer than many could imagine. From an evolutionary perspective, humans have been conditioned to “respond positively to natural elements that enhance prospects of survival” (Hull & Michael, 2009). Some common natural elements, such as sunlight and clean air, have worked as mood boosters for thousands of years. As certain positive aspects of nature have aided us in our evolution, it makes sense that we as humans would generally respond positively to our environment when we are around these aspects. This claim also makes sense from a cultural perspective, as Hull and Michael argue that we “learn to associate positive meanings and feelings with nature” (2009). Essentially, humans have been evolutionarily and culturally conditioned to associate favorably with outdoor locations, resulting in a decrease in stress and positive mood change. Polk Place, as a location that typically embodies positive natural elements, is a space in which one can truly benefit from the environment.
” I come here when I need to clear my head.”
Performing outdoor activities provides an incredible number of benefits to one’s overall stress level and mood. As seen in Kanters, Bristol, and Attarian’s study of college stress and outdoor activity, participating in outdoor activities can greatly benefit one’s perceptions of stress and mood (2002). These researchers conducted a study on college students that consisted of a day’s worth of outdoor experiential training in which the students were taken outdoors and given several activities, such as rock climbing, backpacking, and running, to fill the day. The results of this study indicated that several of the students’ mood-states were significantly reduced after a day of OET, including anxiety-tension, vigor-activity, and depression-dejection (Kanters, Bristol & Attarian, 2002). It is evident that from the results of this study that OET, or simply performing outdoor activities in general, decreases stress and negative emotions. While physical outdoor activity can majorly affect one’s stress, even activities such as reading or studying while outside can provide benefits. When interviewed about where they prefer to do their work, one student stated, “Outside, being outside helps me think, and I get a lot less stressed out when I do my homework out here” (personal communications, 28 October 2016). Performing outdoor activities allows for stress reduction because it keeps both your mind and body occupied while in a relaxed environment.
Personal Space Requirements
Generally, as Americans, we require a great deal of personal space between us and those we are not acquainted with. For those in the US, the preferred distance in a social interaction is about an arm’s length away (Nolan, 1999). This, though, is not true in outdoor locations. When we are outside, we tend to require less personal space distance, allowing others to move closer into our boundaries with less discomfort. Cochran, Hale, and Hissam argue that “vertical space restrictions tend to produce moods states or thoughts which are in some ways different from those associated with open fields, parks, or beaches” (1984). These “vertical space restrictions”, such as ceilings, for example, make us feel as though we are at a disadvantage when faced with a threat. This causes us to be more uncomfortable with invasions of our personal space. When outside, however, we tend to be more comfortable and much safer, even in what we would, when indoors, consider invasions of personal space. This is important when we consider the broader idea of contentment that comes with being outside, specifically in Polk Place.
This ethnography demonstrated, through literature, observations, and interviews, that UNC students utilize Polk Place as a space for stress relief and mood improvement. The testimonials of all interviewees were similar in that they felt the quad is somewhere that allows them a distraction from their stress. The benefits of being in an outdoor atmosphere and performing outdoor activities are evolutionarily as well as culturally important to humans. Finding ways to destress is an important aspect of college life, and many students utilize the quad in this way. These findings are important for the domain of stress relief, as it is so sought after by many. This will potentially lead to an increase in students occupying Polk Place for stress reduction purposes.
Cochran, C. D., Hale, W. D., & Hissam, C. P. (1984). Personal Space Requirements in Indoor Versus Outdoor Locations. The Journal of Psychology, 117(1), 121-123. doi:10.1080/00223980.1984.9923667
Hull, R., & Michael, S. E. (1995). Nature‐based Recreation, mood change, and stress restoration. Leisure Sciences, 17(1), 1-14. doi:10.1080/01490409509513239
Kanters, M. A., Bristol, D. G., & Attarian, A. (2002). The Effects of Outdoor Experiential Training on Perceptions of College Stress. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(2), 257-267. doi:10.1177/10538259
Nolan, R. W. (1999). Communicating and adapting across cultures: Living and working in the global village. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.0202500203
 Interview Questions:
- How would you rate your typical stress level on a scale from 1 to 5?
- Why did you choose to sit on the quad today?
- How often do you come to Polk Place?
- What are you usually doing when you come here?
- How would you describe Polk Place in one word?
- How relaxed are you right now on a scale from 1 to 10?
- Where do you usually do your homework/study?
- Do you feel more comfortable doing work in the quad or in the library?
- What makes the quad different than other locations on campus?
- Do you feel like this is a good place to go when you’re stressed?