There's a reason why listening to nature sounds and soaking up the outdoors reduces stress and makes us feel calmer. Several studies reveal that our interaction with nature comes with many mental and cognitive benefits. Humans tend to feel happier and more alive when spending time in natural environments.
Breathing in the fresh air, soaking up sunlight, listening to nature sounds, and even watching nature documentaries can improve our overall mental well-being.
Read on as we explore the proven mental health benefits of nature.
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as
“a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a contribution to her or his community.”
Mental illnesses involve disorders that occur in cognition and behavior. Some mental illnesses include anxiety, depression, dementia, as well as more severe illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Being indoors has been linked increased risk of mental illnesses. Being cooped up in the four walls of a building for a long time can lead to several mental health issues, including mood disorders and depression.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, many adults who stayed home had limited contact with the natural world reported feeling anxious and depressed.
Psychiatric investigations in China reveal that 60% of adults who spent all of their time at home reported feeling depressed7, while 46% reported feeling irritable.
Like most of us, you probably spend a decent chunk of time on your mobile phone, which equally increases stress and can lead to depression. With increased stress and depression comes a lack of sleep which negatively affects our mental and physical health.
More than half of the people around the world live in urban settings. Researchers project that by 2050, 70% of people worldwide will be living in urban environments.
Urban living is more fast-paced, with people always on the go. While this has its positive effects, urban life also has its adverse effects on our mental health.
Compared to rural areas, people who live in urban areas have a higher risk of mental illnesses. Also, people who move from rural to urban areas can experience stress and anxiety due to cultural and environmental shifts.
The urban environment’s noise, crowding, density, and pollution increase stimulus levels, putting the mind on guard. This can lead to increased stress levels, anxiety, and mental illness.
Since there is a positive relationship between nature and mental health, researchers have come from an ecosystem service perspective suggesting a conceptual model for city planners, developers, and environmental advocates to evaluate the mental health impact of making environmental decisions.
There is, however, still a need for future research on the model for mental health.
In the area of physical wellbeing, we can see models already in place. For example, planting trees to improve air quality and building parks to encourage physical activity. Adding a green space around urban communities can help curb the adverse effects of urban living and improve human health.
Nature has positive effects on our overall mental and physical well-being. Nature reduces stress hormones, reduces depression, boosts our mood, and improves social interaction.
Here are five key mental well-being benefits of being in a natural environment.
The beauty and serenity of nature create a sense of inner peace and tranquillity. Nature experiences have a way of eroding stress. If you feel tired after a stressful day at work, taking a trip through an urban park or green space has a far more calming effect than sitting indoors watching movies.
In Finland, researchers found that urban dwellers who took short trips (as little as 20 minutes) to urban parks and woodlands experienced greater stress relief than those who walked around cities4.
Taking a nature trip on the weekend can leave you feeling twice as energized for a new work week.
Spending time with nature reduces stress, prevents mental fatigue, and improves our mental well-being.
Depression is a common mental illness in today's world. People who live in urban areas with limited contact with nature are said to suffer from mental distress and depression more than those living in rural areas.
Nature affects our five senses, giving us a feeling of gratitude and mindfulness that induces happy hormones.
A study revealed that people who suffered depressive orders experienced reduced symptoms of depression after taking nature walks5. Not only did their depressive symptoms reduce, but they also felt more motivated about life and recovering from depression.
Science also links depression with physical health issues like obesity. Being around nature encourages physical activity, which helps battle health issues like high blood pressure, muscle tension, obesity, and increased heart rate, which are significant contributors to depression.
During physical activity or exercise, our bodies release hormones called Endorphins which are major mood boosters.
Nature also has a positive effect on our cognitive functions. Cognitive functions include our memory, intelligence, and our ability to think and reason.
Studies reveal that regardless of age, nature helps improve our cognitive functions. An experiment proved this point to be indeed true.
Researchers gave a group of students a difficult task. Half of these students had a rooftop view, while the other half had a window view of the grasses and flowers while they executed their task.
It turned out that students who spent time in nature made fewer mistakes executing the difficult task. The experiment concluded that nature increases our concentration levels and positively affects our cognitive function3 (including working memory and other potential benefits).
Developed in the late 1980s by Racheal and Stephen Kaplan, the Attention Restoration Theory is a hypothesis that suggests that nature can improve our ability to focus and concentrate. It also suggests that nature can restore our mental energy.
For example, after a stressful day working on a tasking project, you can take a stroll around the park and feed your mind and eyes on nature. According to this theory, doing this can restore your mental energy, reduce stress and leave you feeling rejuvenated.
Restoration is a popular aspect of environmental psychology that studies the interaction between people and their environmental surroundings.
Stephen and Rachel Kaplan outlined four cognitive states as we go along the way to restoration: a clearer head, mental fatigue recovery, soft fascination, and reflection and restoration.
Spending time in nature can also help boost our self-esteem. Being in green environments can increase happy hormones that elevate our mood and help us feel better about ourselves.
Carrying out physical activities like cycling, jogging, or simply meditating in a natural environment can improve our bodies, translating to a better view of ourselves. Nature also improves mindfulness and helps us appreciate life better.
When you go to a park or a zoo, you are most likely to meet other people and socialize with them. Going on nature trips can help you make new friends and reduce social isolation.
Interestingly, studies also reveal that being exposed to nature can substitute for human connection, mitigate social isolation and improve subjective well-being. And positive human interactions can help us improve our emotional intelligence and other soft skills.
An online survey with 359 individuals revealed positive subjective well-being for people who spent time with nature but had less social connectedness2. Our innate connection with nature makes us feel like we are a part of it. Interacting with nature reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Does spending time in nature have a positive impact on children? Adults experience improved mental health when they spend time interacting with nature. This is also the same for kids.
In today’s modern world, kids spend more time indoors thanks to technology. An average American child spends over 7 hours in front of their screen. Sometimes restrictions also prevent kids from spending time playing outside. This is a result of parental fears about hygiene and the dangers of being outdoors.
As urbanization increases, kids are less inclined to spend time in nature and would instead stick to safe indoor activities like video games and social media.
However, kids spending time in nature has positive physical, emotional, and psychological effects.
Here are eight mental health benefits for kids:
It is important to expose kids to nature, as nature contact can improve kids’ physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
Despite the multiple benefits of nature, it can get challenging to spend time with nature, especially in urban settings where life is more fast-paced.
Fortunately, we have a list of simple and practical ideas that can help you experience nature more deeply.
Related: Check out our big list of best nature quotes to help inspire you to get out and experience all that nature has to offer.
It is easy for us to become entangled in our busy lives that we often take all that is around us for granted, including nature. Mindfulness is a powerful way to improve your mental health.
Taking out time to simply pause, be in the moment, and appreciate your natural environment can significantly improve mental health.
You can set out time each day to reflect and appreciate nature. You can sit around urban green spaces like parks to soak into all that nature has. Listen to the cricket sounds and simply observe the movements of nature.
You could also sit under the night sky and observe the stars. Time spent on these activities can bring an overwhelming feeling of joy and inner peace.
A morning walk, run or hike in nature is a great way to start your day. Not only are you keeping your body fit, but being active around nature elevates your mood and re-energizes your mind for a new day.
You could invite a group of friends around the neighborhood to go for a run with you in local green spaces. Stretch, jog, walk, run and surround yourself with a natural environment.
One of the best ways to appreciate and stay connected with nature is to nurture some plants. Whether you are tending to some vegetables in the garden or just planting a few herbs by your window plant pot, there’s always a satisfaction that comes with growing, harvesting, and eating homegrown food.
Nurturing plants help you stay mindful and protective of nature. It teaches you the process of life and the growth of living things. You could also gain some gardening skills, which can boost your self-esteem and help you feel more confident.
Try growing a few plants in your home backyard and enjoy every process from planting to nurturing and harvesting.
Staying close to a still pond or rolling waves can bring a sense of peace and relaxation. It is a great way to declutter the mind and focus on bigger things. You could also try out some physical activity like paddling or swimming if you wish to combine some exercise with your time around blue spaces.
Do you love painting, drawing, or taking pictures for fun? You can take advantage of your hobby or holiday time to sit out in nature and explore your creative ideas. You can visit a local garden or park and paint or draw activities happening in your natural surroundings. You can also take photos of wildlife, trees, water bodies, and landscapes. Doing this can boost your creativity, reduce stress and increase the production of happy hormones.
Participating in conserving Mother Nature helps us connect more deeply with nature. Taking part in making a difference in our environment can instill confidence, make us feel more purposeful, and boost our self-esteem. You can take part in environmental programs around your local community that focus on preserving nature reserves. You can also contribute to protecting nature by cleaning up the environment and living a sustainable lifestyle.
Can’t get out of the house? Not to worry, you can still connect with nature. You can turn to nature documentaries or listen to nature sounds to relax your mind and connect more deeply with nature.
Studies have shown that while being active in nature has more pronounced benefits, watching or listening to nature documentaries and sounds can equally produce positive emotions and create a sense of connectedness to nature. Studies also reveal that listening to nature sounds has cognitive benefits like increasing concentration and attention levels6.
You can watch YouTube videos of nature or go through a gallery of nature photos.
Related: For a deeper dive, we’ve 19 more ways to connect with nature for you to consider.
As mentioned above, nature comes with several benefits to mental health - from reduced stress to reduced risk of depression and anxiety. Being in a natural setting can lead to a happier mood and also boost self-esteem. It also comes with cognitive benefits like increased brain concentration and mental energy.
Interacting with nature can be as easy as walking or running in a park, or sitting for a meal around a green space. Whatever you do, challenge yourself to stay in touch with nature every day.
Payam Dadvand, Jesus Pujol, Dídac Macià, Gerard Martínez-Vilavella, Laura Blanco-Hinojo, Marion Mortamais (2018, February) The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren
Benjamin D. S. Cartwright, Mathew P. White and Theodore J. Clitherow (2018, June) Nearby Nature ‘Buffers’ the Effect of Low Social Connectedness on Adult Subjective Wellbeing over the Last 7 Days
Kate E. Lee, Kathryn J.H. Williams, Leisa D. Sargent, Nicholas S.G. Williams, Katherine A. Johnson, (2015, June) 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration
Liisa Tyrväinen, Ann Ojala, Kalevi Korpela, Timo Lanki, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Takahide Kagawa (2014, June) The influence of urban green environments on stress relief measures: A field experiment
Berman, M. G., Kross, E., Krpan, K. M., Askren, M. K., Burson, A., Deldin, P. J., Kaplan, S., Sherdell, L., Gotlib, I. H., & Jonides, J. (2012). Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression.
Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. (2018, October) Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance.
Wang, H. C., Ting, W., Li, Z., Sun, E. T., & Wang, X. (2020). Mental Health Problems of Individuals Under the Stay-Home Policy. Psychiatry Investigation
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.