I never really articulated my love of nature until relatively recently. I didn’t grow up participating in many organized outdoor activities, and I never considered myself a particularly “outdoorsy” person. I knew when I moved from my rural hometown to the city I missed being able to see the milky way on a summer night, but the diversity and excitement afforded by a big city mostly overshadowed that loss. As I get older though, I find myself more and more drawn to nature, and when I take the time to appreciate it, it feels like a gift. I delight in it.
Inevitably, as a psychologist, I became curious about how being in nature affects people. As a researcher, I did not want to talk about the benefits of nature to my clients unless I felt there was adequate data to support such claims. Sure enough, as I describe below, being in nature not only positively affects our physical and mental health, but the benefits likely reach beyond the individual and have broader environmental and societal implications. Moreover, therapy is unfortunately inaccessible to many given its cost and long waiting lists. I also find therapy somewhat limiting in its usual format of weekly, one-hour sessions, so I’m always on the look-out for how clients can change their everyday environments to improve their mental health, and being in nature is one way to do so. Being in nature is a relatively simple and accessible way to better our well-being and mental health, and in giving it a try we have little to lose.
I think many of us intuitively know that being in nature is helpful, but what does the science say about how it helps us? In terms of physical health, studies have linked exposure to nature to decreased diseases and a longer life span. Researchers Jolanda Maas and colleagues did a study where they looked at the medical records of 345143 people living in the Netherlands, and found that people living within a one-kilometre radius of a green space were less likely to suffer from various diseases including cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory disease, and neurological disease, as well as other health problems such as diabetes, migraines, asthma, and urinary tract infections (1). Also, at least one study has shown that living near green space is associated with living longer, even if people didn’t use the green space, and possibly has the most benefits for lower income individuals (2).
In addition to the slew of evidence linking exposure to nature and physical health, much research has found a link between nature and mental health. People living within a one-kilometre radius of green space experienced less anxiety and depression (1). Even just a short walk can affect our thoughts and feelings. For example, in a study done around Stanford, California, 60 participants were randomly assigned to a 50-minute walk either in a natural setting or an urban environment. Those who did the nature walk reported less anxiety, rumination, and negative mood and they were more likely to hang on to their positive mood (3). Similarly, a survey done on of over 10000 people in England has linked living in urban areas with more green space to greater life satisfaction (4).
“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.” – Henri Matisse
Our brains also seem to perform better when we’re exposed to nature. Our working memory is better, and we score higher on tasks that require concentration and “directed attention” (focussing on one specific thing while inhibiting distractions) (5). Even children with ADHD concentrated better after a 20-minute walk in the park vs. a walk through the city centre or a walk through a neighbourhood (6).
There is an abundance of research showing that social support, social cohesion (i.e., shared norms and values and a sense of belonging and feeling accepted by one’s group), and a sense of community are beneficial for mental health (7). Common green spaces have been found to facilitate social contact, and could thereby increase a sense of community (8). That is, if you’re living in a neighbourhood where there’s a park, or an apartment building that has a shared garden or courtyard, you are more likely to have informal social contact with your neighbours. Some health professionals and local residents in London are capitalizing on the therapeutic benefits of gardening, and have created a network of food-growing gardens in various health care and hospital settings, where patients learn how to grow food that is then used to feed the hospital patients. As discussed in the article (check it out here), gardening can be used as way to reduce social isolation, not to mention depression, anxiety, stress, and disease, and may even increase the well-being of patients with dementia.
Being in nature might also make us nicer to others and nicer to the environment. In one study, people who watched a nature video were more cooperative and indicated a greater willingness to engage in environmentally sustainable behaviours compared to people who watched a video on architecture (9). And people who are exposed to nature vs. man-made environments reported valuing community and close relationships more and were more generous with their money (10). We also know that being nice to others increases our own positive emotions, such as happiness (11). I love these findings because it shows how far-reaching the benefits of nature can be. That is, exposure to nature seems to benefit us on a personal level, but also has environmental and societal benefits.
Many people also find that being in nature is a spiritual experience, and can facilitate the feeling of being connected to something greater, thereby decreasing feelings of loneliness. Feelings of awe, which is often elicited during exposure to nature (12), have been linked to an expanded perception of time and a greater wiliness to volunteer one’s time to help others (13). Awe-inspiring moments can also help us keep things in perspective, allowing us to feel like our problems are relatively small and fostering the belief that we can cope. For a dose of “awe”, check out the time lapse video below taken from one of Spain’s highest mountain.
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir
Being in nature also provides a great opportunity to practice mindfulness, a particular state of present-moment, sensory awareness linked to lots of positive mental and physical health benefits. Check out my colleague Natsumi’s blog post for more on mindfulness: Mindfulness: An Introductory Guide. And here’s a summary of research on mindfulness.
What is it about nature that is beneficial for our well-being and health? One theory is based on the idea that in urban settings, we have more social stress, and this frequent processing of social stress may put us at risk for mental health issues (14). For example, it’s probable that in an urban setting we more often experience what is referred to as social evaluative threat – feeling judged and negatively evaluated by others – than in a rural setting.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART), on the other hand, suggests that urban environments cause mental fatigue as we’re often having to control where we direct our attention and filter out irrelevant information (15, 16). According to ART, natural environments and nature scenes (think sunsets, butterflies, and streams) are not overly demanding and easily engage our attention, and promote a sense of “fascination” and “being away” (15), thereby allowing us to rest our attentional resources.
Another theory, the Stress Reduction Theory (SRT), suggests that being in a natural environment reduces stress by activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is the system responsible for calming us down (17). In support of SRT, studies have shown that viewing photos and videos of nature scenes decrease stress as measured by various physiological indicators, such as heart rate (18), and walking in parks and forests has been shown to reduce cortisol levels (19).
Although more research needs to be done to clarify, for example, how much exposure to nature is needed to make a difference in one’s health, benefits from nature exposure have been found across different mediums (e.g., images, window views, urban parks, rural areas) (5), for a variety of durations of exposure (minutes to hours to days to years) (20) and for a variety of things – mental and physical health, attention, concentration, and working memory (21). One of my favourite articles summarizing some of these findings is from National Geographic: This is Your Brain on Nature (22).
“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” – John Muir
As many of us have busy schedules and some of us live in urban settings, it can be difficult to access nature. While writing this blog post, I thought it might be helpful to give readers some ideas of where to find nature in the Montreal area. So, I asked my Facebook friends for recommendations of nature spots in and around Montreal. Many graciously replied and below are their responses. I was delighted to read their responses and hear not just about great nature spots, but how nature fuels the imagination.
Last but not least, for some added inspiration, check out this audio clip of birds singing recently recorded from a balcony in the heart of Montreal.