mental health benefits of nature
Mental Health Benefits Of Nature
Did you know that Americans spend 87% of their lives indoors, and a further 6% of their lives in vehicles? That leaves only 7% of times for outdoor activities! I fully expect the percentage to be the same for other people living in industrialised countries.
Does that amount of time spent “inside” affect people’s mental health?
Can more time in Nature help people suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues?
"NHAPS respondents reported spending an average of 87% of their time in enclosed buildings and about 6% of their time in enclosed vehicles." ( source )
In this detailed article we’re going to look at the mental health benefits of getting out and enjoying Nature.
Are there really any mental health benefits to exploring Nature, or could you gain the same benefits from reading a good book in front of a fire? Let’s find out! 🙂
Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:
I like to simplify life where possible. In this series of articles on mental health coping skills we’ve looked at breathing techniques, mindfulness and journaling. Those are three of the simplest, easiest and cheapest ways to boost your mental health that I can think of.
In this article I’d like to tackle another low-cost and easy way to boost your mental health: getting out into Nature.
If you live in the countryside, it should be relatively easy to get out into Nature. If you live in a city, there should be parks for you to enjoy. When city planners build cities they almost always include “green spaces” for the residents to enjoy some time with somewhat natural surroundings.
It’s almost like they know they’re important to our mental health. But when was the last time you visited one of those parks?
Ecotherapy: Getting Out In Nature
Some people naturally gravitate to Nature. They get out for walks, bike rides, picnics, trips to the seaside, mountaineering and other such activities. People who do that are naturally boosting their mental health.
Other people, who have existing mental health issues, may choose to get out into Nature to try to alleviate their symptoms. Doing that is called “Ecotherapy” because you’re actively doing it to try to feel better as opposed to just doing it naturally.
What Is “Getting Out In Nature”?
Before we dive in, we need to define what we’re talking about. When I refer to “getting out in Nature” I mean relating to Nature in some way. Here are a few examples…
- Gardening (either yours, or someone else’s)
- Walking through a park, fields or moorland
- Visiting the seaside. Swimming in the sea, paddling, rock-pool hunting, sandcastle building
- Tending plants in a greenhouse
- Exploring woodlands
- Picnics in outdoor green spaces.
- Star gazing
What I wouldn’t really consider to be “getting out in Nature” is outdoor sporting activities. If you’re being energetic, you’re focussed on the activity itself rather than the enjoyment of being in Nature.
I think that slowing down, relaxing and getting into contact with the sights, sounds and smells that Nature has to offer is where the mental health benefits come from.
For example, with “mountaineering”, I’d imagine that the view from the top of a mountain, the chill of the air and perhaps the sounds of wind and birds would be the “Nature” part, whereas the actual climb would fall under “sporting exercise”.
Of course, there are mental health benefits to sporting activities, but I think they’d be separate to those of relaxing in Nature.
How Does Ecotherapy / Nature Benefit Mental Health?
It has been shown that people expressing gratitude and appreciation improve their mental health.
"About 4 weeks as well as 12 weeks after the conclusion of the writing intervention, participants in the gratitude condition reported significantly better mental health than those in the expressive and control conditions, whereas those in the expressive and control conditions did not differ significantly." ( source )
Getting out into Nature in a way that connects you with Nature allows you to recognise the bond we all share with the natural environment.
It’s then hard not to be grateful for that connection and appreciate it. Hence, I think the mental health benefits of ecotherapy are that it reconnects us with nature and allows us to offer appreciation and gratitude for the natural world around us.
It’s very easy just to take light, air and other aspects of Nature for granted. But when you make the effort to actually go to a park, woodland or the seaside, and put your hand on a tree or dip your toes in the ocean, you physically reconnect with the environment on a fundamental level. It would be hard not to feel excitement, joy or happiness and from them flows appreciation and gratitude.
Active v Passive Contact With Nature
So far I’ve talked about “getting out into Nature” or “exploring Nature”. But there’s another way to enjoy Nature.
Passive contact with Nature
While there are elements of being active in those descriptions, the activity is actually quite passive. You’re enjoying what’s out there. You’re consuming it by looking at the river or the view, by touching the tree or flower, by listening to the stream or bird. While you can immerse yourself in it and enjoy the stimulation of your senses, it’s not participating in the process of Nature
Active contact with Nature
By choosing to be part of the process of life, you can deepen your contact with Nature. This can be as small as growing herbs in a window-box up to tending your own smallholding! The difference between passive and active is that you’re nurturing new life. When you plant a seed, water it and give it somewhere warm, it’ll grow into a strong, healthy plant. Taking care of that plant and nurturing it unlocks a contact with Nature which isn’t possible by just getting out on a walk or a trip to a park.
The Science Of Getting Out In Nature
According to an article in Nature (ironically!), well-being is positively associated with spending just two hours a week in Nature. The benefit is maximal at between 200 and 300 minutes per week, which is about four hours a week.
So getting out into Nature for an hour every other day, or half an hour a day would give you the maximum benefit.
"Compared to no nature contact last week, the likelihood of reporting good health or high well-being became significantly greater with contact ≥120 mins (e.g. 120–179 mins: ORs [95%CIs]: Health = 1.59 [1.31–1.92]; Well-being = 1.23 [1.08–1.40]). Positive associations peaked between 200–300 mins per week with no further gain." ( Nature )
A meta-analysis looking at the relationship between Nature connectedness and happiness found that…
"Those who are more connected to nature tended to experience more positive affect, vitality, and life satisfaction compared to those less connected to nature." ( source )
In this study, depression, anxiety and stress were lower for residents of urban environments with green spaces:
"Higher levels of neighborhood green space were associated with significantly lower levels of symptomology for depression, anxiety and stress, after controlling for a wide range of confounding factors. Results suggest that "greening" could be a potential population mental health improvement strategy in the United States." ( source )