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On the nature of happiness: mental health and the environment


Stress. Depression. Anxiety. Just plain mental fatigue. These are some of the causes of mental ill health that are increasingly common in our society. Spending more time in nature can help us with these.

In fact, poor mental health is the largest cause of disability in the UK and rates are on the increase. There is a good chance that you or someone close to you has struggled with mental ill health. One in four people in England will experience a mental health problem in any given year – the figure is even higher among women. Yet the World Health Organization estimates that between 35% and 50% of people with severe mental health problems in developed countries like the UK, receive no treatment.

Today, on the International Day of Happiness, it is right that we talk about this. But what has nature got to do with it?

Durdle Door. Beaches are among the natural settings with most well-being benefit © Will Ashley-CantelloMe at Durdle Door. Beaches are among the natural settings with most well-being benefit © Will Ashley-Cantello

Well, there is a significant and growing body of evidence that time spent in nature – or even just looking at or into natural scenes – can reduce mental and physical health risks. Time in nature can help to alleviate stress and depression, and improve our mood, raise self-esteem and help our minds restore. This may be something you have felt innately from your own personal experience, but it is important that now scientific research is backing that up. This post summarises and discusses some of that research, but if you want to read a full review of the evidence and find some of the sources behind this post you can see this briefing commissioned by Natural England and conducted by Exeter University.

So, what are the benefits?

Scientific research has found that participants’ physiological signs of stress (e.g. heart rate or stress hormone levels) are alleviated when they walk into woodland and forests. This is particularly well researched in Japan where “shirin yoku”, or forest-bathing (being in the woods and engaging all your senses) is common, and there are 48 therapy trails. Japanese research has also shown it to boost participants’ immune system.

In other studies, viewing images of nature or walking in nature were found to reduce negative feelings such as anxiety, depression, aggression or anger and simultaneously increase positive feelings. These benefits have occurred within natural woodland, urban nature (e.g. parks), by large bodies of water and from ‘wilderness’ trips.

In urban areas and the work place, our minds are tired out due to the effort needed to hold concentration. In natural settings, there is less need for ‘directed attention’ and our minds can naturally restore themselves. This is where we can also find brief detachment from sources of stress and our ‘goals’ and instead find space for reflection.

Some research has also found that children with conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which are increasingly common in countries like the UK, were found to have better concentration in woodlands compared to urban areas.

Therapeutic experiences in wilderness areas like the Scottish highlands have strong mental health benefits. © Will Ashley-CantelloTherapeutic experiences in wilderness areas like the Scottish highlands have strong mental health benefits. © Will Ashley-Cantello

And what do we mean by ‘time in nature’?

It can be very simple, such as a walk in a small pocket of woodland or park near your home. Just last month, news reports highlighted new research that showed that people who can see and hear more birds nearby were less likely to suffer depression or anxiety. According to another study, beaches and woods are those that we in the UK feel most benefit from.

Or it can be more structured, such as a therapeutic and led retreat to the Scottish highlands or perhaps the Lake District. You can find more information on types of ‘eco-therapy’ and who can provide them on the website of the mental health charity Mind.

But really it is about your own preferences and what is accessible to you. Where do you feel is most restorative? Where can you go where you feel your stress reduce? Where have you been that helps ease your depression? It might be the woods, by a river, in a local park or perhaps on top of a hill. Generally speaking, the more frequently you visit natural spaces, the greater the benefit.

What should we do about it?

This is no silver bullet, of course, and medical treatment and advice is crucial. But it is a helpful and well evidenced opportunity that can be free and accessible to most of us.

Why not try it out for yourself, and bring others with you. Take some time out in nature this month – the signs of spring are emerging all around us now! In our busy lives it is easy to go long periods between spending decent time in a natural space while leaving our phones in our pockets, so it may help to find a way to make a habit of it or plan ahead.

I am myself making a concerted effort to explore this potential through mindful experiences in nature. I will be sharing these each month in 2017 through my new blog ‘Rooted to the Moment‘, and encouraging others to follow my progress and do the same.

We can also ask our local and national governments to help capitalise on this opportunity. In particular by providing adequate access and investment in the parks in our towns and cities, helping to protect green spaces and natural landscapes, and perhaps making it easier for health practitioners to help patients to utilise this approach.

These are things we could expect and ask for in the UK Government’s much anticipated new ‘25 year plan for nature’ due out soon, and you can support our campaign for an ambitious plan.

Tomorrow is also the International Day of Forests, and the theme this year is forests and energy. Forests energise me every time I walk among their trees, so I will be making the most of that this week and hope you are able to do the same.

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