Let’s be real: How many hours do you find yourself glued to a screen daily? A 2016 Nielsen Total Audience Report reveals that the average American spends over 10 hours in front of screens. With the world becoming more tech-dependent and urbanized, many are spending less time outdoors. Yet, there’s growing evidence about the benefits of immersing oneself in nature.
Whether it’s a simple walk in an urban park or an adventurous hike in the wild, being in nature offers numerous advantages. These include enhanced focus, reduced stress, mood upliftment, decreased chances of mental disorders, and even increased empathy and cooperation. While most studies have centered on green spaces like parks and forests, the positive effects of blue spaces, areas with views of rivers or oceans, are now being explored. Nature, in all its forms, has potential benefits, and researchers are still diving deep into understanding them. This research is guiding policymakers and the general public on how to harness the therapeutic qualities of nature.
Lisa Nisbet, PhD, a psychologist from Trent University in Ontario, emphasizes, “There’s a growing body of evidence from various researchers indicating that nature positively impacts our physical and mental well-being. Simply walking in nature, even in city settings, can elevate your mood. The bond you feel with nature can boost happiness, even when you’re not directly in a natural setting.”
Mental Boosts from Nature
Nature serves as a soothing remedy for our overworked minds. Both correlational and experimental studies indicate that nature interaction enhances cognitive functions. In a 2019 review, Marc Berman, PhD, a psychologist from the University of Chicago, and his student Kathryn Schertz highlighted that green spaces around schools boost cognitive growth in kids. Similarly, children with green views near their homes exhibit better self-control. Adults in public housing areas with abundant greenery demonstrated superior attentional capabilities compared to those in less green areas. Experiments also revealed that exposure to nature boosts working memory, cognitive adaptability, and attention, whereas urban settings can lead to attention lapses.
Several theories have been proposed to explain these observations. As detailed by Nisbet and her team in a review, the biophilia hypothesis suggests that our evolutionary history in wild environments has ingrained in us a natural inclination towards nature. The stress reduction hypothesis believes that nature induces a physiological reaction that diminishes stress. Another theory, the attention restoration theory, posits that nature rejuvenates our cognitive capacities, enhancing focus and attention.
The reality might be an interplay of these factors. Nisbet notes, “Stress alleviation and attention restoration are interconnected. Given the societal stress issues, both theories have garnered significant research interest.”
Studies underscore the profound healing effects of nature. A mere glimpse of greenery can rejuvenate a weary mind. In a study, Australian scientists tasked students with a monotonous, attention-sapping activity. Those who took a 40-second break to view a green, flower-filled roof made notably fewer errors than those who looked at a concrete roof.
Nature’s sounds also have restorative properties. Berman’s team discovered that individuals who listened to natural sounds, like the chirping of crickets or the sound of waves, outperformed those who heard urban noises, such as traffic or a bustling café, in challenging cognitive tests.
The Connection Between Nature and Joy
Laboratory experiments provide valuable insights, but they only scratch the surface of the myriad benefits of outdoor experiences, believes Cynthia Frantz, PhD, a psychology and environmental studies professor at Oberlin College, Ohio. She emphasizes, “Nature not only boosts cognitive abilities but also offers emotional and existential rewards that extend beyond mere problem-solving skills.”
Gregory Bratman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, in his research review, highlighted that nature contact correlates with heightened happiness, well-being, positive emotions, meaningful social interactions, and a sense of life’s purpose. It also reduces mental distress.
Research also indicates the lasting impact of nature on children. A Danish study, analyzing satellite data, assessed the green space exposure of individuals from birth to age 10 and its relation to their mental health. The study, encompassing data from over 900,000 residents born between 1985 and 2003, revealed that children in greener neighborhoods had a lower risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood. Those with minimal green exposure during childhood had a 55% higher risk of mental illness.
Interestingly, even nature imagery has benefits. Frantz’s study compared the outcomes of individuals walking in natural or urban environments to those watching videos of these settings. Both real and virtual nature exposures improved attention, positive emotions, and problem-reflecting abilities, with real experiences having a stronger impact.
Recently, the potential benefits of virtual reality nature experiences have been explored. Mathew White, PhD, an environmental psychologist from the University of Exeter, and his team concluded that while real nature is superior, virtual reality serves as a decent alternative for those with outdoor access limitations.
Nature might also enhance our kindness towards others and the environment. John Zelenski, PhD, from Carleton University in Ontario, found that undergraduates exposed to nature documentaries were more cooperative and made sustainable choices in a fishing game compared to those who watched architectural videos. Another study by Zelenski revealed that elementary students exhibited more prosocial behavior after visiting a nature school than an aviation museum.
Zelenski notes that these generous behaviors aren’t solely due to elevated moods from nature exposure. A potential reason could be the emotion of awe. He suggests, “Nature might induce awe, which is linked to generosity. Awe can foster a sense of being part of something much larger.”
Engagement vs. Affinity with Nature
Given the myriad advantages tied to nature, a pressing question arises: How much outdoor time suffices? White and his team delved into this by analyzing data from nearly 20,000 UK adults. Their findings suggest that individuals who dedicated at least two hours to recreational nature activities in the past week experienced notably better health and well-being. This trend persisted across various groups, including the elderly and those with health issues. The benefits remained consistent whether the nature exposure was a single two-hour session or distributed throughout the week. White comments, “While we haven’t fully resolved this, it’s a preliminary step towards determining the optimal nature exposure duration.”
However, the duration of nature exposure isn’t the sole factor. Feeling a bond with nature, even when indoors, is equally valuable. This sentiment is termed differently by researchers, such as nature relatedness or nature inclusivity, and various scales have been developed to gauge it.
Regardless of its label, this bond with nature appears to uplift mood and mental health. In a meta-analysis, Alison Pritchard, PhD, ABPP, from the University of Derby, and her team discovered that individuals with a stronger nature bond experienced enhanced eudaimonic well-being, a contentment type that transcends mere happiness and encompasses life purpose.
Zelenski and Nisbet explored if this bond is the key. They examined the overlap between nature connectedness and general connectedness, like resonating with friends or community. Their findings indicated that nature connectedness remained a significant happiness predictor even after accounting for general connectedness. Zelenski mentions, “Those who perceive their identity as intertwined with nature tend to be slightly happier. While nature connectedness isn’t the primary happiness determinant, its association with happiness is quite stable.”
Interestingly, nature might also mitigate feelings of loneliness or social detachment. White and his team surveyed 359 UK residents about their social ties and recent nature interactions. Generally, social isolation correlates with reduced subjective well-being. However, the study revealed that individuals with low social ties but high nature exposure reported elevated well-being. White adds, “Some individuals might prefer solitude over company, but their bond with nature can boost their well-being.”
The Essence of Green and Blue Environments
It’s undeniable that spending time outdoors is beneficial. Researchers are now delving into which environments offer the most advantages. While green spaces have been the focal point, White’s research on marine and freshwater settings, termed “blue spaces,” suggests they too enhance well-being. Surprisingly, blue spaces might even surpass green spaces in their restorative effects.
Venturing into secluded areas might also be rewarding. White’s survey of 4,515 UK inhabitants revealed that visits to rural and coastal areas fostered a deeper nature connection and rejuvenation compared to urban green spaces. High-quality environmental zones, like nature reserves, proved more beneficial than low biodiversity areas. Moreover, White’s study showed that nature videos showcasing diverse ecosystems reduced anxiety and enhanced mood more than those with less varied landscapes.
However, White emphasizes a practical aspect: “If you’re on a short break, a distant wilderness isn’t feasible.” Urban parks and greenery still offer positive impacts. Just as some exercise is better than none, we should embrace green and blue spaces whenever possible. However, accessibility remains a challenge, especially in economically disadvantaged areas, which often lack lush parks or scenic views.
The significance of natural spaces is gaining traction among policymakers, urban planners, and environmental groups. Psychologists, including White, are sharing their insights with entities like the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. While there’s growing interest, many decision-makers await intervention study outcomes before investing in green infrastructure. The United Nations even aims to ensure universal access to safe and inclusive green public spaces by 2030.
Nisbet stresses the urgency of nurturing our bond with nature. As much as humans gain from this connection, the environment also thrives when we’re dedicated to its preservation. Given the pressing challenges of climate change and habitat degradation, the Earth desperately needs our attention. Nisbet remarks, “A detachment from nature diminishes our drive to address pressing issues like climate change. We risk losing the very environments that nourish us.” The pivotal question remains: How can we foster a bond with nature, motivating us to safeguard the spaces vital for our well-being?
- Engaging with nature correlates with cognitive enhancements and boosts in mood, mental health, and emotional wellness.
- A sense of connection to nature can yield well-being advantages, irrespective of the actual duration spent outside.
- Both terrestrial (green) and aquatic (blue) environments contribute to well-being. While secluded and biodiverse areas might offer pronounced benefits, even city parks and greenery can have uplifting effects.