Being in nature improves our health and wellbeing. With a renewed focus on this premise, a profound amount of evidence is now emerging that provides a scientific basis for what we have instinctively known for generations. And, just in time too, as feeling disconnected from the natural world is, unfortunately, all too pervasive.
The benefits of being in nature have been proclaimed and romanticised for centuries by poets, authors and intellectuals alike. With observation after observation noting the powerful effects of nature on our physiological health, mental wellbeing, creativity and intellect. Indeed, John Muir, the influential naturalist writing in the early 1900s, accurately described what has become a hallmark our modern world: "thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity."
The restorative effects of nature are best explained by Russian-born American psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrenner's ecological systems theory. This theory sets out how our individual characteristics interact with our surrounding environment, which together determines our growth and development.
According to Bronfenbrenner's model, our surrounding environment can be categorised into five interconnected systems that range from our immediate environment such as our family, friends and where we live (microsystems), to our broader social, cultural, political and ecological environments (macrosystems).
Fundamentally, humans can be thought of as living cells in a reciprocal relationship with the living body of Earth. Thus what humans do to their outer worlds will ultimately impact their inner one. This theory was initially used to explain how the inherent qualities of children and their environments interact to influence how they grow and develop. However, it also points to the recurring fact that we have to wake up from the illusion that we are separate from the natural world and that our relationship with the natural world needs to be one of improved synergy and connection.
Interestingly, a new study on this very topic was released in February 2020: Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. This study is the first to investigate (within a single study) the contribution of both nature connection to human health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours.
These findings give new insight into how increased contact with nature unlocks health benefits but, possibly even more importantly, these experiences also build a strong emotional connection. Which in turn, inspires people into taking action to help protect the environment. The increased experience in nature leads to pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling and conservation activities.
Lead author, Leanne Martin of the University of Plymouth, said “in the context of increasing urbanisation, it is important to understand how engagement with our planet’s natural resources relate to human health and behaviour. Our results suggest that physically and psychologically reconnecting with nature can be beneficial for human health and wellbeing, and at the same time encourages individuals to act in ways which protect the health of the planet.”
Providing greater opportunities and access for immersive natural experiences for more people will not only increase the wellbeing and quality of our lives but also ensure that long term patterns of behaviour are altered towards securing the sustainable health of our planet.
The good news is that while the global scientific community continues to illuminate the therapeutic benefits of nature, some countries are leading the way in ensuring their citizens get access to more green spaces.
Japan, which has some of the most densely populated cities in the world, in 1982 introduced the art of ‘shinrin-yoku’, which literally translates as ‘forest bathing’. Japan compels its citizens to make use of the country's 3,000-mile woodlands for therapeutic purposes. In South Korea, The Korea Forest Service (KFS) facilitated ‘Forest Healing’ to utilise forests for enhancing health and quality of life. The KFS has also legalised the concept of forest healing and plans to establish 34 national and public healing forest healing centres.
This notion of 'Greencare' is also firmly entrenched in Europe and by 2006 there were 500 Greencare farms in Norway, 430 in the Netherlands, 300 in Italy and Germany, 350 in Austria, 140 in Belgium and 15 in Slovenia and the numbers are increasing too (4). Experts believe that immersion in nature or engaging in nature-based activities on a weekly basis will help alleviate modern health problems, from chronic diseases to psychological disorders such as stress and depression.
Rapid urbanisation and our subsequent disconnect with nature have led to not only the increased prevalence of mental and physiological issues but a population with an insatiable appetite for consumption. By returning to natural environments and understanding that we do not exist separately from them, will hopefully improve our health as well as change the way we perceive and the value we attribute to the natural world. Prioritising long-term health and well-being of the natural world as if it was our own.
After all, it is.