• New Nature Magazine

"Be As Happy As A Pig In Muck" - How Nature Assists Positive Mental Health

With an ever increasing awareness of mental health conditions, the topic itself has sparked many new and ongoing conversations. Humans are reliant on the natural world for survival. As our understanding of mental health improves, it is apparent that experiences in nature and positive mental health are also intrinsically linked to improved wellbeing in our daily lives.

A study, conducted by a researcher at the University of British Columbia, recently examined the connection between the natural world and personal well-being. In the study, the lead author Holli-Anne Passmore led a two week ‘intervention’ with participants asked to take a photo of a natural item that caught their attention, and briefly write down how they felt. This particular study focused on the emotional responses of participants to those aspects of the natural world that are entwined in the urban, for example a tree, or a houseplant. The findings demonstrate how immersion in the natural world – even on a minor scale, improves overall well-being and sense of connectedness with the wider community.

An article by Ross Gittens, published this week, points more specifically to the innate relationship between humans and nature. Take, for example the scientific process of photosynthesis, whereby plants, algae and bacteria absorb carbon dioxide, one of our waste products, and turn this into oxygen which is essential for our survival. But what about the mental health benefits resulting from our relationship with nature? To investigate, Gittens references a study which looks at the sentiment analysis of 2.2 million Twitter messages and found that tweets which were posted within parks contained more positive content than those posted in urban areas. The positive tweets had connotations of joy, anticipation, excitement, and reduced levels of anger and fear which were evident in urban areas. Analysis of the data in parks shows clear patterns of positive expression over the seasons too, in contrast to the data within urban areas which showed no real correlations. To put it simply, parks cheer us up! They offer a space to appreciate nature, exercise and meet other people. Parks offer relief from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.

The term ‘biophilia’ coined by psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm is defined as the ‘idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life’. This concept traces its roots back to our earlier years, as hunters and foragers in the wild. As our life evolves, our bodies evolve to mould in with our habitat. However this process takes time – and most of our human history has entailed a life in the wilderness. As a result of our now sedentary lifestyle, numerous people struggle with chronic health issues. Noise and air pollution are huge concerns in some urban environments, and these can result in visual impairments, hearing loss and additional stress which can lead to further mental health concerns. Following increased awareness of these issues, provisions have been made available for people to return to nature and enjoy the benefits of biophilia. Forest bathing, a simple walk in the park, indoor plants and biophilic building design offer some solutions.

Ecotherapy has also been introduced as a therapeutic treatment option for those with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Patients are encouraged to participate in outdoor activities in nature, for example volunteering, animal assistance, adventure and conservation. These activities keep people active, improve their skills and help those who are lonely and isolated to feel more connected to the community – all positive for improving mental health issues.

As we live in an increasingly urbanised world, there’s growing recognition of the role that green spaces play in improving our physical and mental health. However, this understanding is not new. Research over the past 40 years has already proven the positive links; reduced blood pressure, allergies and deaths from cardiovascular disease are just a few. Human links with nature reduce stress, anxiety and improve social well being. Being in a natural environment also encourages physical activity too, which alone is hugely beneficial in ensuring good mental health.

What do you do to help yourself feel more connected to nature?

Words by Laura Butler

Laura works as a Marketing Executive and enjoys being creative in her spare time; painting and writing. She is passionate about wildlife conservation and enjoys learning about the natural world.

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