Research shows how time in nature can greatly impact our mental health, increasing our cognition and improving our psychological wellbeing.
Many of us can surely remember the refreshing, attitude-changing experience of leaving a stuffy house to venture outdoors into a park, or even better away from the city frenzy into the countryside or a forest. Interactions with nature have the impressive power to reset our biological clock, pulling us out of our arbitrarily constructed routines to appreciate the complex, magnificent beauty of the biological world around us.
By reconnecting ourselves to our original environment, nature helps us find mental balances and reminds us of where all life comes from. Scientists around the world tend to agree on the fact that humans – even today – are attracted to biophilic design rather than stark, commercial interiors because of our evolutionary past as hunter-gatherers connected with nature. While nothing can truly compare to the grandiose effect of panoramic views of nature, opening your windows onto the natural world or infusing your home with natural materials can help offer similar results.
Cognitive and psychological effects of exposure to nature
Researchers at Vrije University Medical Center in the Netherlands, suggested how just looking at still images of nature is can be enough “natural” stimulus to lower our stress levels to some degree. This effect may be due to evolutionary relationships with the colors found in nature, or even our innate desire as humans to reconnect with the natural world, or maybe a combination of both.
Another study entitled “Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress” published by the NCBI, found that interactions with nature, as opposed to an indoor or synthetic environment, can lead to “improvements in self-esteem, positive and negative mood, anxiety levels, and feelings of calmness and comfort.” Recovery time from physical injury or struggles with mental health episodes can also be reduced by interactions with nature or with images of nature.
To put it simply, spending time in nature can act as a balm for our busy brains.
A nuber of other researches have shown that interacting with nature has clear, measurable cognitive benefits. 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 attention and sharpness than those assigned to units with less access to natural environments. While hundreds of field experiments 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.
Amongst the various theories for explaining these findings, the biophilia hypothesis argues that since our ancestors evolved in wild settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive to connect with nature. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense.
We evolved over hundreds of thausands of years at the “mercy” of nature, following its cycles and moving wherever nature allowed us to. This must have had some significant imprint on our psycological development and, who knows, maybe on our DNA as well – although these last point is still just mere speculation.
Another hypothesis suggests that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels. A third idea, called attention restoration theory, claims that nature replenishes one’s cognitive resources, restoring the ability to concentrate and pay attention.
As in most things,the truth will probably be a combination of these factors.
How Nature leads to Happiness
Spending time in nature has cognitive benefits, but it also has emotional and existential benefits that go beyond just being able to solve arithmetic problems more quickly.
Evidence that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress has been recently brought up by the scientific community.
Other work suggests that when children get outside, it leaves a lasting impression. In a study of 900,000 residents born between 1985 and 2003 in Denmark, researchers used satellite data to assess people’s exposure to green space from birth to age 10, which they compared with data on individual mental health outcomes. Children who lived in neighborhoods with more green space had a reduced risk of many psychiatric disorders later in life, including depression, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorder. For those with the lowest levels of green space exposure during childhood, the risk of developing mental illness was 55% higher than for those who grew up with abundant green space.
More recently, scientists have begun exploring whether virtual reality nature experiences could lead to similar benefic outcomes. In 2018, they concluded that while real nature is best, virtual reality can be a worthwhile substitute for people who are unable to get outdoors, such as people with mobility problems or illness.
Nature might also make us nicer—to other people as well as to the planet. Another study showed undergraduates either nature documentaries or videos about architectural landmarks. Then the participants then played a fishing game in which they made decisions about how many fish to harvest across multiple seasons. Those who had watched the nature video were more likely to cooperate with other players, and also more likely to make choices that would sustain the fish population.
These “generous behaviors” weren’t attributed to students’ moods, so it wasn’t simply that spending time in nature made them happier and therefore more giving. Another plausible (though unproven) explanation is the emotion of awe. “There are some hints that awe is associated with generosity, and nature can be a way to induce awe,” scientists says. “One of the things that may come from awe is the feeling that the individual is part of a much bigger whole.”
Color psychology and Productivity
Other psychological researchers have found that organic colors in nature, especially those associated with edible plants (most of which are shades of green), water, or ancient crops (wheat, barley, flax, etc.) have a soothing effect on our brain. There are also physiological reasons why humans react positively to the shades of blue and green found in nature.
According to the article “Color Psychology: The Emotional Effects of Colors”, “the eye focuses the color green directly on the retina...said to be less straining on your eye muscles” than warm colors like red and orange, while blue is “said to decrease respiration and lower blood pressure.”
So it’s clear that getting outside is good for us. Now, scientists are working to determine what types of environments are best. Much attention has gone to green spaces, but some have studied a variety of marine and freshwater environments and found these blue spaces are also good for well-being. In fact, they may even be slightly more restorative than green spaces.
Productivity is another big factor when it comes to studies on nature’s effect on people’s behavior and wellbeing. Researchers found that productivity amongst workers could be enhanced by as much as 15% if potted plants were placed around office environments.
As mentioned above, access to nature does not need to be direct to be powerful; plants can be placed around the room, photographs of mountaintops and grassy fields can be hung on walls, and windows can be left open for a refreshing breeze and smells of flowers and trees.
While the positive impacts of exposure to nature on mental state and productivity have already been proved, many important physical effects still remain. Plants filter the air of toxins that can cause acute allergic reactions, chronic illness, lung damage, skin damage, breathing issues, and many other health problems both immediately and over time.
They also release oxygen into the air, absorbing carbon dioxide, removing it, and transforming it into fresh and breathable air. According to the article “How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?“ released by the University of Minnesota, exposure to nature also affects the body by reducing “blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones.”
Improve your own productivity, physical health, and emotional wellness by filling your home with images of the outside world. Paste foliage-patterned wallpaper on the walls, set up potted plants throughout each room, and choose natural materials wherever possible to ensure a happier, healthier home.
A conclusive note
There is urgency in fostering more connections with nature. Because while people benefit from their connection with the natural world, the environment also greatly benefits when people feel connected and committed to caring for the Earth – and between climate change and habitat loss, the planet is in serious need of some care.
When people are disconnected from nature, they aren’t motivated to work on wicked problems like climate change. We’re losing the environments that contribute to our flourishing. The key question is:
How do we help people feel connected to nature so we’re motivated to protect the places that will help us thrive?