Updated: Jun 29
Most of us know intuitively that spending time in nature can help us feel calmer and happier. From kids climbing trees, to city parks, to beach huts overlooking the sea – even looking up at the sky – nature is a crucial part of how we relax and have fun.
And our history with the healing power of nature goes back a long way. In Europe, gardens were part of early infirmaries as far back as the Middle Ages. St Bernard, writing almost 1000 years ago, described the healing effects of natural spaces. Today, walking and birdwatching are now both being prescribed on the NHS to help treat wide variety of conditions. And nature doesn’t just support mental health – recent research has demonstrated extraordinary results for physical conditions from Alzheimer’s to diabetes, heart disease to high blood pressure. Now, scientific research is catching up with intuition, and there are many studies that demonstrate how profoundly impactful time spent in nature can be on our health. From boosting mood to soothing feelings of stress or anger, to better connection and reduced loneliness, and even greater confidence, empathy and self-esteem.
The ‘biophilia hypothesis’ suggests that humans are hard-wired to love nature. Having evolved in a natural environment, it’s part of our genetic make-up. It’s possible that we conceive of specific natural landscapes as safe havens – especially those near water, or with visible horizons. In evolutionary terms, chances of survival would have been greater in this environment. According to Stress Reduction Theory, time spent in nature can physiologically trigger a response that lowers stress levels. And Attention Restoration Theory suggests that nature can nourish our cognitive function. Even looking out of a window for 40 seconds onto a green landscape can – according to one study – restore concentration and attention.
Today, a typical American spends 90% of their time indoors, and by 2050, two thirds of the global population will live in cities. And yet – research suggests that we are not fully adapted to urban environments. If we are deprived of contact with nature, the consequences can be serious, and further reaching than you might initially expect. Scientist Theodore Roszak was the first to coin the term ‘ecopsychology’ in the 1970s – the study of the mental health benefits of being in nature – and the field has been growing ever since.
Many studies have shown positive correlation between nature and cognition: from students with views of nature showing a greater ability to direct attention, to increased cognitive function in children who recently moved to more natural surroundings. Children who lived nearby nature also reported greater levels of self-esteem – even when parents were going through stressful situations. So, nature can act as a buffer to stressful life events. For those with little or no access to green spaces, even looking at high quality images of nature, watching landscapes on film, or listening to natural soundscapes can deliver many of the same psychophysiological benefits. This is good news for accessibility, as some of the world’s poorest communities have less direct access to green spaces.
Exposure to nature is only part of the story. A recent study from Exeter University found that two hours spent in nature per week, either all at once or in shorter bursts, radically boosted health and wellbeing. But alongside this, a feeling of connectedness to nature also has a strong positive impact. A strong feeling of connection translates to a close relationship or emotional attachment to our natural environment – and it makes the benefits even more powerful.
Research into why this feeling of connection is so important is still ongoing – but one explanation could come from the emotion of awe. Awe has been associated with empathy, generosity, altruism and wellbeing – the sense that one is part of a bigger whole. That’s probably a familiar feeling – looking at a forest, mountain, rolling fields or the sea can take us out of our own heads, and make us feel more existentially connected. Poets and artists have been inspired by this sublime connection with nature for thousands of years – and scientific research is only now catching up. So – why not try exploring your connection with nature? Taking 20 minutes to walk through a park, stroll along a river, having a plant on your desk, or even look out of a window can make all the difference.