In the past few decades the importance of nature, and the contact with the natural world for human health, well-being and functioning has been amply documented by research. Before summarising some of the studies it is worth considering the work of Kaplan and Kaplan who have spent more than twenty years looking at the restorative effects of nature. They argue that there are four reasons why nature is likely to aid human functioning:
- In the natural world we have a sense of being away from the day to day stresses and strains of life.
- Being in nature helps us to put matters in perspective.
- The natural world stimulates and pleases our senses.
- Being in nature usually makes people feel that they are in a supportive and harmonious environment.
All of this helps to encourage optimal human functioning and restoration.
The following gives a few specific examples of research on the benefits of contact with the natural world:
A study by Russell and Mehrabian in 1976 demonstrated that showing subjects views of pleasant natural scenes promoted health-oriented behaviours. Researchers suggested that viewing natural scenes increased pleasurable emotional states and thereby reduced the desire to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and drinking.
Viewing nature can actually encourage healing. A 1984 study by Ulrich showed that hospital patients who could see a natural scene through their hospital window (as opposed to a brick wall) were discharged more quickly, needed less painkilling drugs and were generally deemed to be more cooperative by staff. A 1991 study by the same researcher showed that exposure to such scenes has a positive impact on physical health by affecting blood pressure, muscle tension and so forth.
A 2008 study reported in The Lancet concluded that ‘populations exposed to greener environments also enjoy lower levels of income-related health inequality’, specifically ‘circulatory diseases’.
Kuo and Sullivan (2001) studied the inhabitants of an urban public housing complex in Chicago, and tested the hypothesis that nearby nature reduces the propensity for aggression. Long-term female residents of the apartment complex were interviewed. The authors found that levels of aggression and violence were significantly lower among individuals who had some nearby nature outside their apartments than among their counterparts who lived in barren conditions, and that residents living in greener settings demonstrated reliably better performance on measures of attentional functioning. The authors invoke the 'attention restoration theory' as providing the best explanation for the link between nature and aggression.
The benefits of even limited contact with nature is not confined to physical health but extends to mental health as well mainly through the reduction of stress and anxiety However, this also reinforces the physical health benefits since reducing stress effects the cardiovascular system.
The benefit of the environment on our lives is not confined to health but also extends to cognitive abilities. A 1995 study by Tennessen and Crimpich of students taking an exam found that there was a higher cognitive performance for students who could view a natural scene out of the window as opposed to a entirely ‘human-constructed scene.
A 2009 study by Kaplan et al showed that walking in the park at any time of the year has benefits for both attention and memory: after spending an hour in nature both increased by 20 per cent. The study did find that people enjoyed the walks more in spring and summer than at other times of the year. The results show that this effect does not occur for those who took a walk in an urban area. The researchers found that even when participants viewed images, of natural environments and urban environments, those viewing the natural ones did better on the attention and memory tests. According to the authors being outside in the natural environment fulfills basic needs and produces similar effects to meditating.
Another large well-constructed study by Greenway in 1995 showed psychological and lifestyle benefits gained from two week participation in a wilderness course. Contact with nature also affects our relationships.
Taylor et al (1998) have shown that people who spend time in ‘treed public spaces’ are more likely to talk and interact with others – thus enhancing community.
A 2001 study by Kuo and Sullivan showed that families who can observe a natural scene from their window are less likely to be involved in violence towards partners or children.
Researchers at the University of Sheffield (Fuller et al, 2007) have found that parks rich in species are not only beneficial for the environment but also for people's general levels of well-being. This research shows that biologically complex surroundings appear to enhance a person’s well-being more than those spaces less rich in species.
The researchers were also able to demonstrate that green space users can accurately assess how many different kinds of species live in urban parks, particularly when looking at plants. Their results indicate that successful management of urban green spaces should emphasise biological complexity to enhance human well-being, in addition to biodiversity conservation.
A 2007 research project carried out by the University of Essex showed that a walk in the country could counteract depression.
A variety of research projects, listed in another section summarise specific studies on the benefit of nature to children and young people.
Arbor, A, 2008, ‘Going outside- even in the cold-improves memory, attention,
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J & Kaplan, S., 2008, ‘The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature’, Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
Burns, G. W, 2005, ‘Naturally happy, naturally healthy: the role of the natural environment in well-being’ in Huppert, F. A., Baylis, N., & Keverne, B, 2005, The Science of Well-being, Oxford University Press.
Kaplan, S., 1995, ‘The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Towards An Integrative Framework.’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
Mitchell, R., & Popham, F., 2008, ‘Effect of exposure to natural environment on health inequalities: an observational population study’, 272(9650), 1655-1660.