Our relationship with nature – how much we notice, think about and appreciate our natural surroundings – is critical in supporting good mental health and preventing distress.
Nature is an important need for many and vital in keeping us emotionally, psychologically and physically healthy.
Regarding mental health benefits, nature has a very wide definition. It can mean green spaces like parks, woodland or forests and blue spaces like rivers, wetlands, beaches or canals. It also includes trees on an urban street, private gardens, verges and even indoor plants or window boxes. Surprisingly, even watching nature documentaries is good for our mental health. This is great news as it means the mental health benefits of nature can be made available to nearly every one of us, no matter where we live.
This report provides a summary of the evidence of how and why our relationship with nature is so important and beneficial to our mental health. The report highlights the unequal access to nature’s benefits for specific groups and the steps needed to address that inequality.
Nature has played a critical role in our mental health during the pandemic
Through our research at the Mental Health Foundation, we know that spending time outdoors has been one of the key factors enabling people to cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, nearly half (45%) of people in the UK told us that visiting green spaces, such as parks, helped them to cope.
Our findings are echoed by other research that found that people visiting and noticing nature, mainly, was important in supporting their wellbeing. This is a really important point, as it helps us understand that a connection with nature helps unlock mental health benefits and gives us essential clues on how to maximise these benefits for our well-being.
Quality counts. Connecting with nature is critical
Spending time in nature is good for us for lots of reasons. “Fresh air and exercise” have long been recommended as a way for many to feel better, physically and mentally.
Now evidence shows us that the quality of our relationship with nature is part of the reason for its positive impact on our wellbeing. Researchers use the term “connectedness” to describe the ideal relationship.
Connectedness refers to the way we relate to nature and experience nature. A strong connection with nature means feeling a close relationship or an emotional attachment to our natural surroundings.
There are ways that we can develop our connectedness with nature. Activities that involve the senses can help to develop our connection with the natural world, as can activities where we feel emotions such as compassion, perceive beauty or find meaning in nature.
For instance, we might notice the beauty of nature by listening intently to birdsong or touching the bark of trees. Smelling flowers or feeling the soil between our fingers whilst planting bulbs in the garden are also highly sensual ways to connect with nature. We don’t always have to be in nature to further our relationship with the natural world: writing a poem about our favourite nature spot or reflecting on preferred walks helps us consciously notice, consider and pause to appreciate the good things in nature.
People with good nature connectedness tend to be happier
Research shows that people who are more connected with nature are usually happier in life and more likely to report feeling their lives are worthwhile. Nature can generate many positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, and creativity and can facilitate concentration.
Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health, particularly lower depression and anxiety.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people with strong nature connectedness are likelier to have pro-environmental behaviours such as recycling items or buying seasonal food. This is likely to lead to further benefits if these pro-environmental activities can lead to natural improvements that we can then go on to enjoy. At a time of devastating environmental threats, developing a stronger, mutually supportive relationship between people and the environment will be critical.
Green and serene. We benefit from “high quality” nature spaces
“High quality” natural spaces are better for us and our wellbeing.
Quality can mean higher biodiversity (a wide variety of plants and wildlife). Specific characteristics of nature are particularly important in rural or urban spaces. These include the amount of “green” in trees, plants, and grass, the variety of plants and wildlife, and “serene” landscapes that feel calm and quiet.
Cleanliness, such as the absence of litter, in natural spaces is also a factor in how much our mental health benefits from spending time outside. Cleaner nature areas are linked to lower rates of depression.
Nature is everywhere, but high quality nature isn’t available equally
Whilst nature can be found anywhere, high-quality nature spaces, which we know are most likely to help support good mental health, are not available equally to everyone in the UK. This is a more complicated picture than just how far we live from a high-quality nature space.
Proximity is certainly a factor, with deprived communities least likely to live near a high-quality nature space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, our poll found that people living in urban areas were less likely than rural residents to connect with nature as much as they wanted. People without gardens were less likely than those with gardens. Younger adults, in particular, may face many barriers to connecting with nature.
People living with a disability or health condition often face particular barriers to access when natural spaces are not equipped with inclusion in mind, or there is a lack of accessible routes.
For some groups, including many women, younger people, disabled people and people from ethnic minorities, nature spaces may feel inaccessible or less enjoyable because they are not safe – from the risk of physical harm, sexual harassment, hate crime or discrimination.
For many of these groups, this inequality has a double effect. Several groups described above not only get less of the well-being benefit of connecting with nature due to these access barriers, but they are the groups within our population most at risk of mental health problems.
There are good examples of initiatives in nature spaces to reduce the inequality of access and allow all groups to benefit from connecting with nature to support their well-being. High-quality urban parks, designed with accessibility in mind, can enable more people to enjoy and connect with nature. Other solutions include planting flowers and trees along our streets or even recreating natural habitats where new human developments such as a road have been built. These are known as “green corridors”.
The key message of this research evidence is a need to shift our attention from getting people to visit natural and sometimes remote spaces to focus on how people can tune in and connect with “everyday” nature close to home through simple activities. We can develop a new relationship with the natural world by noticing nature, which has been found to bring benefits to mental health.
We would like to extend our thanks for his contribution to Professor Miles Richardson, from the University of Derby, for his support in reviewing this report.