Dr. Francis Quinn, Lecturer in Psychology, School of Applied Social Studies, looks at how nature and our environment impacts on our mental wellbeing.
In 1984, Roger Ulrich carried out a groundbreaking study. He looked at the effect of the rooms where patients recovered from surgery in a Pennsylvania hospital: some patients had windows facing a brick wall, while others (matched on health status) looked onto a pleasing nature scene. Those with a view of nature recovered faster, needed less pain medication, and nurses commented on them more positively in their notes (1).
As humans, we are designed for the natural world, and research shows positive impacts of nature on well-being – physical and mental. Much comes from environmental psychology, which looks at the relationships between humans, the built and natural environments, well-being and behaviour. That’s the impact of built or natural environments on us, and how we can also reduce impact on them.
City life can be stressful, especially when there is crowding, noise, heavy traffic, not feeling fully safe, and poor-quality neighbourhoods and housing. Stress matters because it wears down our physical and mental health, by acting directly on the body’s systems and also by encouraging us to act in less healthy ways (e.g. what we eat), as described in any health psychology textbook. Chronic stress weakens us, leaving us vulnerable to poor mental and physical health, which can then be triggered by a sudden bout of more serious stress or problems.
But research shows that closeness to nature has positive effects on health. People with more green space within 3km of their home have better mental and physical health than those with less, even controlling statistically for wealth or poverty (2). The quality of this green space also counts, with better-quality green space (e.g. accessibility, tidiness, colourfulness) related to better health for residents who live nearby, irrespective of the amount (3). Exercising outdoors, rather than indoors, may be associated with greater feelings of enjoyment, revitalisation and energy, and greater reductions in tension, anger and depression (4). Even viewing green space through a window can help, as shown in Ulrich’s classic 1984 hospital study (1). The best evidence for how these health effects work relates to the stress-reducing effect of nature, and while air quality, physical activity and social relations have also been researched, evidence for these is weak (5).
Many studies show that the natural world can speed up our natural recovery process from stress and mental fatigue. Even lab experiments have demonstrated these restorative effects: participants are given a stressful activity, then shown natural environments or a built environment via photos, sounds or even smells. Most have found that natural scenes lead to better mood and recovery from stress and mental fatigue than built environment scenes, irrespective of the type of natural setting (6).
Some researchers (7) explain this by an automatic emotional response to nature (e.g. liking), which reduces arousal and speeds up our in-built recovery process. Others (8) suggest that paying attention to something (nature) that is intrinsically much more interesting than most things in our lives, and being away from reminders of daily hassles and obligations, lets our attentional capacity recover when everyday activities have depleted it. This also explains why other pleasant, intrinsically-interesting places can also be restorative, such as museums.
All these findings are being used to promote human well-being. For example, “evidence-based design” draws on this and other research to design buildings that best meet human needs, especially for healthcare settings like hospitals (9), as shown at the new South Glasgow University Hospital where all patient rooms have outside views. Another approach, “biophilic design” (10) emphasises including aspects of nature as much as possible into buildings, such as daylight, natural ventilation, plants, scenes or representations of nature, and features found in natural settings such as curves and water.
But these findings also mean something for us. We can all benefit from spending more time with nature, in it or through a window. At RGU we benefit from a campus with parkland, grass, trees, a river and views across a valley – but how often have you walked through it, or sat on the grass?
Psychology shows that taking a nature walk really is a good idea.
Bechtel, R. B. & Churchman, A. (2002). Handbook of Environmental Psychology. New York: Wiley.
Steg, L., van den Berg, A. E. & de Groot, J. I. (2013). Environmental Psychology: An Introduction. Chichester: BPS Blackwell.
- Ulrich, R. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224 (4647), 420-421. doi: 10.1126/science.6143402
- Mitchell, R. & Popham, F. (2007). Greenspace, urbanity and health: Relationships in England. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61 (8), 681-683. doi: 10.1136/jech.2006.053553
- van Dillen, S. M., de Vries, S., Groenewegen, P. P. & Spreeuwenberg, P. (2012). Greenspace in urban neighborhoods and residents’ health: Adding quality to quantity. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 66 (e8). doi: 10.1136/jech.2009.104695
- Coon, J. T., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J. & Depledge, M. H. (2011). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science & Technology, 45 (5), 1761–1772. doi: 10.1021/es102947t
- van den Berg, A. E., Joye, Y. & de Vries, S. (2013). Health effects of nature. In L. Steg, A. van den Berg & J. de Groot (Eds.), Environmental Psychology: An Introduction (pp.47-56). Chichester: BPS Blackwell.
- Velarde, M. D., Fry, G. & Tveit, M. (2007). Health effects of viewing landscapes: Landscape types in environmental psychology. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 6 (4), 199-212. doi: 10.1016/j.ufug.2007.07.001
- Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A. & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11 (3), 201-230. doi: 10.1016/S0272-4944(05)80184-7
- Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15 (3), 169-182. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2
- Ulrich, R. S., Zimring, C., Zhu, X., DuBose, J., Seo, H., Choi, Y. S., et al. (2008). A review of the research literature on evidence-based healthcare design. Retrieved from http://hcleader.healthdesign.org/whitepapers.html.
- Kellert, S. R., Heerwagen, J. H. & Mador, M. L. (2008). Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. (in RGU library)