The benefits of nature in environments
There are many positive benefits that we receive when we are in natural environments and they all improve our psychological well-being. Being in a natural environment such as a park, the mountains and the coast have been shown to improve mood and even reduce depression and anxiety. However not all of us can get to these places easily or frequently. Many of us are living busy, urban lives where concrete and brick are more visible than flora and fauna. So how can we benefit from the powerful restorative effects of nature?
Visual impairment and the natural environment
Most research that has studied the positive benefits of being in natural environments has focused on visual aspects such as the way that our attention is captured by a sunset or the alternating shade produced as the wind moves leaves in a tree. However in my recent research I investigated whether visually impaired people receive the same psychological benefits from natural environments as sighted people. The research findings showed a resounding YES, there are aspects in the natural environment other than just those that we can see that can improve our well-being.
Utilising other senses
The research showed that stimuli such as different smells and varying sounds all increase feelings of relaxation and psychological freedom. One participant gave a valuable insight into how it is possible to gain health benefits from urban/industrial environments. He said ‘Sometimes I can feel it’s fantastically relaxing, this is a really nice place and I ask someone, “So where are we?”, “Oh in the middle of an industrial estate”. But because there have been birds singing and I’ve smelt maybe the smell of laurel or some nice flowers that may be in a border outside a factory unit or something, then of course it’s worked for me because I think that I’m somewhere that I’m not’.
Another participant spoke of the power of smell to add detail and a sense of vitality, ‘I’ve smelt the, the things are fantastic. It’s like it’s adding colour to things, so, so it’s brightened things up, it’s made things more cheerful, more alive, more vibrant’.
The benefits of any environment
This shows that we don’t have to necessarily be in a full blown natural environment such as the countryside or coast to boost our psychological well-being. If we’re in a built up environment, by focusing on specific sounds or by shifting our attention to the breeze on our cheek, we can also reduce our stress levels and increase our well-being.
This reminds me of the benefits of mindfulness, of being consciously present and aware. It’s not what is present, it is what we pay attention to that affects us. Being able to tune into things that we may ordinarily ignore, things that may be lost due to our over reliance on sight, has the potential to increase feelings of relaxation, calm and improve our mental health.
Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J. & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41–50.
Shaw, B., Coyle, A., Gatersleben, B. & Ungar, S. (2015). Exploring nature experiences of people with visual impairments. Bilingual Journal of Environmental Psychology, 6, 2, 1-41.