02 Mar Lost and found: The link between nature and wellbeing
As human beings, we are utterly dependent upon nature. Not only for food, shelter and our very existence, but also for our mental wellbeing, as modern research shows.
The earth’s waters, plants and animals provide sustenance not only to our bodies, but also to our minds – their myriad forms, textures, tastes, scents and sounds feed our imagination and foster our happiness.
But why, only in the last half century, have we become so interested in understanding the effects of nature on our wellbeing? What has driven us to investigate the relationship between the human mind and the more-than-human world? An answer, it seems, lies hidden in our language.
When we speak of “nature”, we tend to subconsciously draw a line between ourselves and the rest of the living world. The term “nature” commonly refers to non-human life-forms and environments that exist primarily outside our society; but we forget that, even in our urban centres, the natural world encompasses and envelops us – the sweeping sky and swirling trees reminding us that we are part of something that transcends our species.
Our conventional use of the word “nature” subtly reflects our perceived separation from the wider world, and this belief is also mirrored in and reinforced by our increasingly indoors and screen-centred way of living.
Never before in humanity’s two million-year history have we been so alienated from the rest of nature, and the consequences of this are evident in the global epidemic of mental and physical health problems, particularly during the last half century, thanks to the relentless urbanisation and digitisation of society.
It seems that now, more than ever, we need nature for our sanity. Mounting scientific research into nature’s effect on human wellbeing is itself born out of a recognition of this fact, as is the rise in popularity of ecotherapy practices, such as the Japanese art of Shinrin-yoku (“forest-bathing”) and Green Gyms, and of Scandinavian “forest schools” for children.
Our recent scientific discoveries also underpin the growth of the “urban rewilding” movement, which advocates the blending of nature with city life to support the wellbeing of city-dwellers, boost biodiversity and trap carbon from the atmosphere. One example of this is the 10 Minute Walk initiative, which aims to ensure that every urban resident across the United States has safe access to a high quality green space within ten minutes’ walk from their homes by 2050.
It’s clear that our species is gradually reawakening to our dependency upon nature for our wellbeing. But what are the specific health benefits linked to better connections with the more-than-human world? And what can we do to access them?
Nature and human health
Before we explore the answers to these questions, it may help to define what we mean by “nature”, as the term has a very broad definition. It can be used to refer to green spaces of varying sizes, such as parks, gardens, or forests; to blue spaces, like rivers, lakes or oceans; or to elements of the wider world that we have incorporated into our urban or domestic environments, for example, street trees, house plants and pets.
Conscious, sensory contact with any form of nature, regardless of its size, has been shown to offer health benefits. Of course, large, immersive environments such as forests are likely to yield more benefits than smaller ones, and the more regular the contact, the better.
According to one study published in Nature, spending at least two hours per week in natural settings is linked to good health, regardless of whether this time is spread over several days or concentrated into one or two. However, any less than two hours per week, and you won’t receive the same benefits.
Mental health benefits
A wealth of evidence suggests that spending time in nature is good for our mental health. It can reduce stress, anxiety, confusion and depression, and foster feelings of happiness, wellbeing and relaxation – even watching nature documentaries has been shown to lift our mood and reduce boredom. It may also help to reduce loneliness – as many people have discovered during the Covid 19 pandemic – by making us feel more connected to our communities and the living world.
In addition, regular contact with nature is linked to improved memory, cognition, concentration and creativity; to increased confidence and self-esteem; to better social cohesion within communities; to an increased capacity to pay attention, even in children with ADHD; and to reduced feelings of anger and aggression, as evidenced by studies which found that city streets lined with trees and other vegetation tend to have lower rates of violence and crime.
Physical health benefits
Aside from boosting our mental wellbeing, time spent in natural settings also offers physical health benefits.
For example, the practice of “forest bathing”, which involves walking slowly among trees and breathing in their various aromas, has been shown to support the immune system by increasing the number and activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells, which help the body to fight tumours and infections.
Nature is also healing and restorative. In one famous study, patients who had undergone gallbladder surgery were found to recover much faster when they had a window view of a natural setting.
Furthermore, when we spend time in nature, we tend to be active – whether we’re hiking, jogging or simply strolling – and that offers extra benefits.
Being out in natural light, especially early in the morning, is also linked with improved sleep quality.
Tips for reconnecting with nature
So what can we do to reap these potential benefits? Here are six simple ways to further your relationship with nature:
1. Use all your senses.
For many of us, our primary experience of nature is almost exclusively visual and auditory.
This may seem unsurprising, given that sight and hearing are our dominant senses, but it gives us a very limited, one dimensional experience of nature, in which we are not really involved in our surroundings.
One way to connect more deeply with the living world is to use all five senses to take in all the various textures, tastes, smells, sounds, shapes and colours around you.
2. Volunteer in conservation work.
This can enhance the quality of the nature around you and deliver even more benefits through working with others.
3. Grow your own food.
4. Care for houseplants.
5. Exercise outdoors in nature.
6. Spend time with animals.
As we have seen, nature offers us numerous health benefits. By choosing to reconnect with its plants, animals and landscapes, not only will we be happier and healthier, but we will also come to better understand our place within the living world, and learn the vital importance of caring for it. In doing so, we may yet save our planet and ourselves from the perils of climate change – and rediscover, perhaps, what it means to be fully human.
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