Science confirms: Spending time in nature really does help your mind

New research confirms what we already knew deep down: spending time in nature makes us feel better. All types of nature help, but rural and coastal areas help more than urban parks.

Image credits: Elke Karin Luger.

If you talk to people, you’ll find countless stories of how being in a forest or by the seaside does wonders for the mind. Who hasn’t taken a stroll in a park to clear their head, or gone to the countryside to get away from the hectic city? However, surprisingly few studies have analyzed this effect. A new study from British researchers investigated how different environmental settings and their quality impacted psychological well-being.

They asked 4,500 people about their outdoor experiences. The participants were asked to describe their visit and self-evaluate their overall experience and feelings. While self-reporting has its caveats, it was deemed the best reporting mechanism for this study.

Researchers discovered that while urban parks and gardens also helped, rural and coastal areas offered more peace of mind. Furthermore, protected or designated natural areas (i.e. national parks) also resulted in greatly improved mental well-being, indicating that not all green areas are created equal. Socioeconomic status was not found to be a factor in the enjoyment of nature, highlighting the need for free or cheap access to parks and protected areas.

Free access to parks is significant, researchers note. image credits: WIll Paterson.

People who spent time in natural settings reported greater feelings of relaxation and lower levels of stress, as well as stronger emotional connections to the natural world — the more time they spent in nature, the more they cared about it. Visits longer than 30 minutes were especially effective.

A rather surprising positive impact was reported in coastal areas. This brings about an interesting discussion: if nice coastal areas make us feel better, doesn’t that mean that they’re worth more financially? This could be an important factor in encouraging policymakers to designate and protect more natural areas.

“It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea,” study authors say.

“People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users.”

The same discussion could be had about both urban and natural parks. If we could quantify how much they help people feel better, this could perhaps justify the creation of more such spaces.

Lead author of the paper Dr. Kayleigh Wyles says that while results are encouraging, much more needs to be done to understand exactly how and why this happens. Understanding how people’s relationships with nature form, how they influence personal values and attitudes, and what behavioral implications they may have, could contribute not only personal well-being but also to environmental management goals, researchers write in a previous study.

“We’ve demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we’re still exploring how and why. Here we have found that our mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.

“These findings are important as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritise the protection of these environments and emphasise why accessibility to nature is so important.”

This isn’t the first time such a connection has been described. In a previous review, Brian Restall and Elisabeth Conrad from the University of Malta found significant evidence of connectedness and mindfulness related to spending time in nature.

Journal Reference: Kayleigh Wyles. Are Some Natural Environments More Psychologically Beneficial Than Others? The Importance of Type and Quality on Connectedness to Nature and Psychological Restoration. DOI: 10.117710013916517738312.


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