Witnessing Nature: Take It In… It’s Good For You

August 16, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Being in natural environments, even viewing pictures of natural environments, has positive psychological benefits. This is meaningful because more than 50% of people live in urban areas, and by 2050, it’s estimated that 70% of us will live in cities. Although urban life has some benefits, like providing easy access to schools, medical care, food, and transportation, urban life is also associated with increased levels of mental illness. Understanding how nature provides a buffer for the negative parts of urban life helps us plan smarter for an ever more urban world.


How is nature good for mental health?

Many ways, but here’s something that we don’t hear much about -- Laboratory research and studies conducted out in natural settings have shown that contact with real or simulated green settings, including photographs of green settings, as opposed to built settings has positive effects on mood, self-esteem, people’s reported feelings of stress and depression, and can help people recover from stress. Research shows that exposure to nature, by – for example – taking a walk in the woods, or by looking at an image of a patch of greenery, can reduce stress, negative moods, negative feelings (e.g., anger), and attentional fatigue. These results occur mostly when people are exposed to unthreatening natural environments.


“Living and working in busy, overcrowded, and information rich cities, drains the mental resources controlling attention.” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494415000328). Attention can improve after experiencing or viewing “restorative” nature scenes. Sustained attention is vital for learning and memory, performing everyday tasks well, and for effectively interacting with others.


Taking a short break to look at nature scenes during the day, can just be enough to help people refresh their mind and improve productivity. Subjects in experiments who had just a 40 second view of images of green roofs (e.g., a small grassy area with flowers on top of a high-rise city building) said it was more “restorative”, and it boosted their attention more compared to participants who viewed images of a concrete roof on a high-rise building.


Some researchers have concluded that an underlying reason for positive mental health effects of viewing nature is that it reduces “rumination” (e.g., mentally dwelling on things) While rumination is good for some animals, like cows, horses, deer, and giraffes (among others), in humans, rumination is a harmful pattern of self-focused negative thought. Rumination (the human kind) is associated with heightened risk for depression and other mental illnesses. Rumination has been shown to predict the onset of depressive episodes, and other mental disorders.  Mental rumination is essentially filling your mind with lots of negative, often fear-focused thinking. It’s easy to slip into habits of ruminating on the wrong things (e.g., what’s wrong with our life, how we messed up, what we failed at, etc...), vs. what’s right in our life (e.g., what we’re doing well, that we’re healthy and employed, and where we’ve succeeded).


Positive distractions, including views of nature, has been shown to decrease rumination. In one study, people who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.


To be effective in decreasing rumination, these positive distractions must be “engrossing”. In other words, the distractions really need to grab your attention.


Studies provide compelling evidence that visual nature experiences may confer real psychological benefits. And what’s even more is that psychologists found that people who are more connected to nature are happier. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4157607/)


So, take in nature regularly ….walk in the woods, your local park.. get out there ...and keep images of nature in your indoor places.


  • “The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis”, Colin A. Capaldi, Raelyne L. Dopko, and John M. Zelenski, Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5: 976. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976.
  • “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation”, Gregory N. Bratman, J. Paul Hamilton, Kevin S. Hahn, Gretchen C. Daily, and James J. Gross. Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences, July 14, 2015. 112 (28) 8567-8572, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112.
  • “40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration”, Kate E. Lee, Kathryn J.H. Williams, Leisa D. Sargent, Nicholas S.G. Williams, and Katherine A. Johnson, Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2015 (42), 182-189, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494415000328
  • “Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity”, Magdalena M.H.E. van den Berg, Jolanda Maas, Rianne Muller, Anoek Braun, Wendy Kaandorp, René van Lien, Mireille N.M. van Poppel, Willem van Mechelen, and Agnes E. van den Berg, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2015 Dec; 12(12): 15860–15874, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4690962/.
  • “The Health Benefits of Urban Nature: How Much Do We Need?”, Danielle F. Shanahan, Richard A. Fuller, Robert Bush, Brenda B. Lin, Kevin J. Gaston, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 5, 1 May 2015, 476–485, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biv032.


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