It has long been thought that spending time in nature has positive effects on overall wellbeing, including physical, emotional, and mental wellness. However, it was not until the past 40 years or so that psychological researchers turned their focus to this particular topic. As modernization and development continued to increase, as well as with the introduction and increased use of technology, the impact of these changes on psychological well-being became an area of interest.
According to a study conducted in 1998, the typical American will spend about 90% of their life indoors. During this time of increased time spent indoors, we have also seen the immense growth of mental illness, including widespread depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, isolation, and loneliness. This leads to the question that launched countless research studies: How do interactions and experiences within nature have an impact on our psychological well-being?
Through these studies, the evidence has become overwhelmingly clear. Interacting with nature, in a variety of different capacities, helps to increase psychological restoration, reduce levels of stress and anxiety, and improves mood and attention ability. It has also been shown that spending time in nature helps to decrease rumination, which is highly correlated to higher levels of depression and anxiety.
But why does nature have this affect on us? As we rely more and more on technology and modern conveniences in our everyday lives, it is easy to overlook the impact that they have on our psychological well-being. Overall, we also rarely take time to remember the past way of life of our ancestors, which includes the natural instincts that still live in our DNA.
The very definitions of ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ themselves have been debated, as some believe they are ideas created from social construction while others believe that they do exist within their own independent and constant form. As what many consider to be nature and wilderness were once the only landscape, these terms are now mainly culturally and individually defined. What may be considered to be nature by one person may not be considered to be nature by another. For example, nature can be both a thick forest, as well as a small urban park. Ultimately, researchers have defined nature in terms of a space that provides a quieter atmosphere, a larger field of view than in urban areas, and an environment that contains non-human living things, such as vegetation and animals.
There have been studies focused on two main theories about how nature impacts psychological health - Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) and Attention Restoration Theory (ART). While some scientists stand firm in one of these proposed theories, there are strong cases to be made for both, and both hold true.
Stress Reduction Theory believes that nature provides healing power that addresses stress levels - both on a conscious level and for stress that one may be unaware of. Particularly for those living in urban settings, factors such as continual traffic, limited open horizons and vegetation, and population density contribute to the everyday stress for individuals. In fact, function magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI scans have proven this fact, showing how the effects of urbanization play a role in taxing the neural mechanisms that work to help cope with stress. Through studies, however, scientists have seen that even spending as little as 15 minutes within a forest or other natural settings is enough to help decrease stress levels, showing a more drastic decrease for individuals dealing with a larger stressful crisis. Researchers agree across the board that the more time spend in the natural world, however, the greater the impact of the psychological benefits.
Attention Restoration Theory, on the other hand, states that we are able to replenish our attention though the cognitive respite that nature provides. The majority of our days require what is called ‘directed attention’ - which requires us to actively and consciously focus and concentrate on a particular task, discussion, or content. Again, this mechanism within our brain is easily additionally taxed by urban environments, and is prone to becoming fatigued, resulting in inability to concentrate and increased irritability. However, ‘involuntary attention’ includes any stimuli that is naturally intriguing, and therefore allows the mechanism used for directed attention to rest. Spending time within nature is one of the best ways to activate involuntary attention, as it inherently captivates our senses and attention.
While both of these theories are important in showing evidence of nature’s benefits, perhaps even more inherent to the interaction of humans with nature is the Biophilia Hypothesis. This is a proposed belief that as human beings, we have a deep and innate love for the natural world, which ultimately stems for our very genetics and history as a species. Relying on our natural instincts that led to higher survival rates for our ancestors, we are drawn to what our genetics consider to be “safe havens” - environments that provide a greater field of vision such as waterfronts and open horizons. For urban dwellers, this is an environment that often must be intentionally sought out.
This deep and innate need is often likened to the innate human need to belong to a group or tribe. Just as we long for connection to other humans, we long for connection to nature. The fulfillment of this need comes from direct interaction - the mind and body experience within nature. While natural landscapes provide countless benefits alone, there are additional psychological benefits that stem from this sense of belonging and connection to something greater than the self. Like connection to people, connection to nature can instill a sense of purpose within.
Particularly during a time of social distancing, when loneliness, depression, and anxiety are common, nature provides us with a way to reduce stress, allow our mind to rest, and to reconnect with a deep sense of purpose and belonging. Whether you are able to spend time with friends and loved ones outdoors, or choose to do so on your own, make sure to slow down and appreciate what nature has to offer for your health and well-being.
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., & Daily, G. C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1249(1), 118-136.
Cox, D. T., Shanahan, D. F., Hudson, H. L., Plummer, K. E., Siriwardena, G. M., Fuller, R. A., ... & Gaston, K. J. (2017). Doses of neighborhood nature: the benefits for mental health of living with nature. BioScience, 67(2), 147-155.