The psychological impacts of the pandemic are being felt across the globe, including in Canada. Findings released from a recent online survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute suggest that half of Canadians are struggling with worsened mental health, many of which reported feeling worried, anxious, and bored (click here for more details). An increasing amount of resources have become available to help people cope during these unprecedented times (click here for an example). One relatively quick and easy strategy that may provide some additional relief is increasing nature contact, or exposure to the natural world.
Nature’s Mental Health Benefits
A substantial amount of research suggests that spending time in nature can support better mental health2. Regardless of where nature is experienced – a backyard, an urban park, or in remote wilderness locations – its benefits are wide-ranging. Both passive and active engagement (sitting, walking, etc.) in outdoor areas with mostly natural features, including being around trees or bodies of water, have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and increase happiness, joy, and awe. Nature’s effects on well-being can also be quite fast-acting; even 15-20 minute walks in nature can boost mood and vitality.
People who spend more time in nature tend to feel a stronger sense of connection with the natural world (a construct known as nature connectedness or nature relatedness9). People with greater nature-connectedness not only engage in more environmentally-protective behaviours, but also report greater life satisfaction, personal growth, and purpose or meaning in their lives8. Connecting with nature may therefore help people feel happier and function better during these uncertain times.
Why is Nature Beneficial?
One explanation for nature’s well-being benefits is described by the Attention Restoration Theory, which suggests that attention is a limited resource that (like a muscle) is exhausted with use. However, attention can be restored through rest! Many daily activities require effort to focus attention, such as staying on work-related tasks amid distractions or tending to children’s needs and keeping them engaged. Even activities like checking social media or watching television (that may be perceived as restorative) can be mentally draining because they draw from the same attentional resource. The more exhausted this resource is, the more likely people are to experience poor concentration and negative moods. However, fascinating stimuli provide a form of rest and recovery. Natural environments are restorative because they are inherently interesting and evoke soft fascination; an effortless form of attention (as opposed to more intense forms of fascination, like watching concerts or sports, which can consume more attention). Soft fascination also frees up “mental space”, allowing for more expansive and reflective thinking. Not surprisingly then, nature contact has been linked with better concentration and enhanced creativity.
What if Access to Nature is Limited?
Indirect exposure to nature, such as viewing nature images or videos, can also improve well-being. For example, watching a 30-minute slideshow of pictures of a park can be as effective in reducing stress as actually being in the park5. Stress recovery is also heightened when sounds of nature accompany nature scenes. Also, viewing nature images for as little as 10 minutes has been shown to reduce negative emotions, including anxiety and depression3. Evidence also suggests that viewing nature images that have high colour brightness, saturation, and contrast can help reduce boredom4. Although simulated nature is not as effective in improving well-being as actual nature experiences7, it may serve as a supplement when access to nature areas is limited. Click on the links below for examples of alternative ways to connect with nature:
Connecting with nature is not a cure-all for mental health struggles, but it may aid in coping as people adjust to a rapidly changing world. In fact, it has been argued that nature contact is an underutilized therapeutic strategy, and that a connection with nature is necessary for human well-being and functioning1. Research shows that people tend to underestimate nature’s benefits, so prioritizing regular nature contact may be essential to support your mental health and to feel more connected.
Written by Danielle Lachance, MSc. Pshychology
- Baxter, D. E., & Pelletier, L. G. (2019). Is nature relatedness a basic human psychological need? A critical examination of the extant literature. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 60(1), 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000145
- Bratman et al. (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances, 5: eaax0903. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903
- Brooks, A. M., Ottley, K. M., Arbuthnott, K. D., & Sevigny, P. (2017). Nature-related mood effects: Season and type of nature contact. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 54, 91-102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2017.10.004
- Igou, E. R., & Van Tilburg, W. A. P, (2019). A remedy for boredom: Natural environments as a psychological resource. In A. A. Donnelly & T. E. MacIntyre (Eds.), Physical activity in natural settings: Green and blue exercise. Routledge.
- Kjellgren, A., & Buhrkall, H. (2010). A comparison of the restorative effect of a natural environment with that of a simulated natural environment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 464-472. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.01.011
- Mackay, C. M. L., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2019.101323
- McMahan, E., & Estes, D. (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 507–519. https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2014.994224
- Pritchard et al. (2019). The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 21, 1145-1167. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00118-6
- Tam, K.-P. (2013). Concepts and measures related to connection to nature: Similarities and differences. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 34, 64–78. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.01.004