How Does Nature Impact Our Wellbeing?
From city parks to wetlands, nature has been shown to support our mental wellbeing. However, for many people access to wild nature is limited and we need to invest in more high-quality green spaces to enable more people to benefit.
Future research should explore the mechanisms through which nature impacts health outcomes using novel methods such as ecological momentary assessments and randomized controlled trials.
1. Reduces Stress
Research shows that spending time in nature reduces stress and anxiety, and it also increases happiness, positive emotions, social interactions and a sense of meaning. It even boosts your immune system and helps you sleep better.
Various studies show that being in natural environments — like parks, forests, beaches or mountains— reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In fact, a view of a forest from a hospital room reduced stress in patients with a psychiatric disorder.
Biodiverse nature — places that are rich in different kinds of plants and animals — has a greater impact on mental well-being than do single-species habitats. However, getting to a natural environment can be difficult for people with limited physical ability, mental health conditions or disabilities. Fortunately, efforts are underway to provide more accessible green spaces, including urban parks designed with accessibility in mind.
2. Reduces Anxiety
Whether we call it forest bathing, ecotherapy, green time or wilderness cure, the growing field of research on nature and mental health shows that being outdoors helps relieve stress and anxiety and improves mood. Studies also show it increases cognitive functioning and creativity.
Researchers find that the quality of the nature experience is more important than the amount of time spent in nature. Quality can be measured by the amount of biodiversity (the variety of plants and animals), the beauty of the landscape, or by the cleanliness of the natural environment.
Even watching videos of nature can boost attention and positive emotions, and a recent study showed that people who watched natural video had less anxiety symptoms than those who watched urban videos. However, more research is needed to understand how and why this happens.
3. Increases Creativity
The natural world provides a wealth of creative inspiration, from innovative technical solutions like prosthetic arms that mimic octopus tentacles to beautiful artistic creations from Claude Monet’s poppy fields to William Wordsworth’s odes. Researchers have found that just a few minutes spent in nature can help you come up with more ideas and improve your productivity.
This research suggests that time in nature increases creativity by reducing attention fatigue and restoring neural circuits that are often overused during focused work. It is also worth noting that this study was based on participant self-reports, and that further studies are needed to explore the cognitive and affective mechanisms behind these findings. Nonetheless, the fact that natural environments are related to creativity demonstrates that the concept of restorative environments is more broadly applicable than previously thought.
4. Reduces Depression
In nature, people report feelings of calmness and relaxation. Studies of depression have found that rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activity decrease in people who spend time in natural environments .
A study comparing residential trajectories of twins over 28 years revealed that greater exposure to green space was associated with lower levels of self-reported anxiety, stress, and depression. This is independent of genetics.
In one experimental study, patients recovering from a cholecystectomy who had a view of a natural environment in their hospital room had shorter hospital stays and received fewer negative evaluative comments in their nurse’s notes than those whose windows faced a brick building wall. Researchers believe that this was due to the soothing effect of natural landscapes. They can help ease the pain, reduce tension and even prevent postoperative complications.
5. Increases Mood
Research suggests that nature boosts our mood, a feeling of wellbeing, and helps us recover from depression and stress. It can also help us feel more alive, creative and connected to life.
Scientists are working to understand what it is about nature that improves our mood. They are focusing on the quality of natural environments, such as biodiversity and serenity, as well as what specific activities or aspects of nature promote these benefits.
For example, one study found that people who spend two hours a week in green spaces are more likely to report good health and mental well-being than those who don’t. Another experiment showed that students who paused for 40 seconds midway through an attention-draining computer task to look at a flowering green tree made fewer mistakes than those who did not.