How Nature Affects Mental Health

Across the world, more and more of us are living in urban areas, often detached completely from nature.  Whilst this may seem a purely aesthetic concern, it’s also a concern for our decision making.  A few years ago I wrote about a study highlighting how exposure to nature affects our decision making, and especially our desire for instant gratification.

The researchers discovered that the team that was exposed to nature was more likely to choose delayed gratification. Indeed, they were around 15% less likely to select instant gratification than their urban peers.

Exposure to nature could also impact your state of mind in other ways.  A recent study from King’s College London used a smartphone app, called Urban Mind, to assess the relationship between natural environments in cities, and our mental wellbeing.

The research came to a number of conclusions.  Firstly, being outdoors, hearing birdsong and generally feeling in contact with nature were linked with higher levels of mental wellbeing.

This impact was especially pronounced in individuals with impulsive characteristics, who were in turn more at risk of having mental health issues.

Mobile monitoring

This was achieved by monitoring over 100 users of the Urban Mind app, who made over 3,000 assessments over a single, one-week period.  These assessments consisted of several questions, both about their current environment and their current mental wellbeing.  Each assessment was geotagged using GPS to monitor the exact location.

Several natural features were found to have a significant impact not only in the immediate mental wellbeing of the individual, but also their prolonged wellbeing.  These features included trees, birdsong and the sky.  Their impact lasted several hours after their exposure.

That the impact of nature was especially strong on those with impulsive tendencies echoes the findings from the previous study I opened this post with.  It suggests that nature can have the biggest impact on those in most need of help with their mental health.

“These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental wellbeing. The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health. From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations,” the researchers say.

The team hope that their work will feed into a better understanding of the impact of urban design, and provide robust and scientific data to support smarter design.

“Our findings provide a much-needed evidence base for the benefits of nature within urban centres. From the perspective of urban planning and design, we hope the results will inform future investments and policies, helping build heathier cities,” they say.