New Study Reveals Nature’s Ability to Boost Mental Health

by Denis Storey
June 12, 2024 at 10:51 AM UTC

Research shows that looking at natural elements can improve mental health, emphasizing the importance of nature in urban planning.

Clinical relevance: New research shows that viewing natural elements in urban parks can improve mental health, even without leaving the city.

  • The study used eye-tracking technology to examine how focusing on nature versus man-made elements affects mood and anxiety.
  • Participants who focused on natural elements reported improved mood and reduced anxiety compared to those focusing on man-made elements.
  • The findings suggest incorporating green spaces into urban design can help mitigate the mental health challenges of city living.

As spring melts into summer, two things are certain: people will spend more time outside and argue more about urban planning. New research lands squarely in the middle of that Venn diagram.

Scientists have long acknowledged that time spent outdoors in nature helps nurture one’s mental health and sense of well-being. And this new study suggests you don’t have to leave the city to enjoy those benefits.

A paper appearing in the journal People and Nature shows that all someone has to do is look at natural elements – even if they’re in an urban park – to reap those same benefits.

Methodology

The researchers, led by Bangor University’s Whitney Fleming, leveraged eye-tracking technology to examine how what we see outside influences our mental health. The findings suggest a new strategy for tackling the stress, anxiety, and depression typically linked to urban living.

The study involved 117 adults who researchers assigned (randomly) to one of three categories:

  1. The Green group focused on natural elements, such as trees.
  2. The Grey group, centered on man-made elements, such as buildings.
  3. And the Mixed group, which included a combination of the other two.

The researchers outfitted participants with specialized eye-tracking glasses during a 45-minute guided walk, stopping at points along the way that emphasized either natural or man-made elements (or some of each) based on their group assignment.

Before and after the walk, the participants filled out surveys that gauged their mood, anxiety levels, and the “restorative quality” of the walk. The surveys included the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI).

Meanwhile, the eye-tracking data provided precise measures of visual engagement, confirming that participants focused on what they were supposed to.

Green Breaks Through the Grey

The results surprised even the researchers who knew what they were looking for. Those who focused on natural elements reported notable mood improvements and lower anxiety levels compared to those who focused on man-made elements. The green group also showed higher levels of positive emotions and described feeling more refreshed and rejuvenated.

The grey group, on the other hand, showed no such benefits. The mixed group professed some benefits, which suggests that even a partial focus on nature can be beneficial.

What It All Means for Planners

These findings boast substantial implications for both urban planning and mental health. Incorporating natural elements into urban design, such as green spaces, tree-lined streets, and parks, could help mitigate the mental health challenges that come with living in the city.

“We suggest specifically (1) the creation of spaces that have natural elements for individuals to look at; (2) designing natural spaces that encourage people to look at and interact with nature; and (3) including a greater amount of specific green elements such as trees, bushes, and lawns,” the study’s authors wrote. “If planners and landscape architects can attract people’s attention to nature in their daily lives, such as on the way to work or school, this could potentially significantly reduce an individual’s daily mental burden.”

Nature and Mental Health

For mental health professionals, the research supports integrating guided attention exercises that encourage focusing on natural elements during walks or outdoor activities, which could help better treat anxiety and depression.

“The results of this study may be explained by common heuristics,” Fleming’s team concluded. “Daniel Kahneman popularized the term ‘what you see is all there is’ in his description of the process by which the brain is susceptible to cognitive biases that the information an individual has is all of the relevant information. This phenomenon is usually viewed negatively, especially when it comes to decision-making, but if this mechanism underlies the association between visual attention and mental benefits from nature, individuals could use this bias to their advantage.”

Overall, the study results highlight the importance of visual engagement with nature. It demonstrates that where we focus our attention can influence our mental health benefits. For the average person, this could mean that simply looking at trees, flowers, and other natural elements can be a boon for one’s mental health.

Further Reading

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Commentary

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