by Laura Grassi
Abstract Nature is an important need for many and vital in keeping us emotionally, psychologically and physically healthy. Psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition.
Be honest: How much time do you spend staring at a screen each day? On average, people spend 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones per day. Individuals check their phones an average of 58 times each day. Our increasing reliance on technology, combined with a global trend toward urban living, means many of us are spending ever less time outdoors—even as scientists compile evidence of the value of getting out into the natural world.
Exposure to nature has been linked to a host of benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even upticks in empathy and cooperation. Most research so far has focused on green spaces such as parks and forests, and researchers are now also beginning to study the benefits of blue spaces, places with river and ocean views. Surprisingly, even watching nature documentaries is good for our mental health. This is great news as it means the mental health benefits of nature can be made available to nearly every one of us, no matter where we live.
You can boost your mood just by walking in nature, even in urban nature. And the sense of connection you have with the natural world seems to contribute to happiness even when you’re not physically immersed in nature.
People with good nature connectedness tend to be happier
Research shows that people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile.
Nature can generate a multitude of positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, creativity and can facilitate concentration. Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health; in particular lower depression and anxiety levels. Perhaps not surprisingly, people with strong nature connectedness are also more likely to have pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling items or buying seasonal food. At a time of devastating environmental threats, developing a stronger mutually supportive relationship between people and the environment will be critical.
Spending time in nature can act as a balm for our busy brains. Both correlational and experimental research have shown that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits – a topic University of Chicago psychologist Marc Berman, PhD, and his student Kathryn Schertz explored in a 2019 review. They reported, for instance, that green spaces near schools promote cognitive development in children and green views near children’s homes promote self-control behaviors. Adults assigned to public housing units in neighborhoods with more green space showed better attentional functioning than those assigned to units with less access to natural environments. And experiments have found that being exposed to natural environments improves working memory, cognitive flexibility and attentional control, while exposure to urban environments is linked to attention deficits.
With so many benefits linked to nature, people naturally wonder: How much time outside is enough?
An interesting investigation studied a representative sample of nearly 20,000 adults across the United Kingdom. People who had spent at least two recreational hours in nature during the previous week reported significantly greater health and well-being. That pattern held true across subgroups including older adults and people with chronic health problems, and the effects were the same whether they got their dose of nature in a single 120-minute session or spread out over the course of the week (Scientific Reports).
Nature is everywhere, but high quality nature isn’t available equally.
People living in urban areas were less likely than rural residents to connect with nature as much as they wanted, and people without gardens less likely than those with gardens.
Younger adults in particular may face many barriers to connecting with nature. People living with a disability or health condition often face particular barriers to access, when natural spaces are not equipped with inclusion in mind or there is alack of accessible routes. For some groups, including many women, younger people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, nature spaces may feel inaccessible or less enjoyable because they are not safe – from risk of physical harm, sexual harassment, hate crime or discrimination. For many of these groups there is a double effect of this inequality. There are good examples of initiatives in nature spaces to reduce the inequality of access, and allow all groups to benefit from connecting with nature to support their wellbeing.
High quality urban parks, designed with accessibility in mind, can enable more people to enjoy and connect with nature. Other solutions include planting flowers and trees along our streets or even recreating natural habitats where new human developments such as a road have been built.
- Spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health and emotional well-being.
- Feeling connected to nature can produce similar benefits to well-being, regardless of how much time one spends outdoors.
- Both green spaces and blue spaces (aquatic environments) produce well-being benefits. More remote and biodiverse spaces may be particularly helpful, though even urban parks and trees can lead to positive outcomes.