Our relationship with nature – how much we notice, think about and appreciate our natural surroundings – is a critical factor 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.
When it comes to mental health benefits, nature has a very wide definition. It can mean green spaces such as parks, woodland or forests as well as 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 has been shown to be 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 own 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 which has found that people visiting and noticing nature in particular was important in supporting their wellbeing. This is a really important point, as it helps us to understand that a connection with nature helps unlock the mental health benefits – and it also gives us essential clues on how to maximise these benefits for our wellbeing.
Quality counts. Connecting with nature is critical
Spending time in nature is good for us for lots of reasons. “Fresh air and exercise” has 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 help 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 a multitude of positive emotions, such as calmness, joy, creativity and can facilitate concentration.
Nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of poor mental health; in particular lower depression and anxiety levels.
Perhaps not surprisingly, people with strong nature connectedness are also more likely 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 improvements in nature 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). Whether we are in rural or urban spaces, certain characteristics of nature are particularly important. 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 nature 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, and people without gardens 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 risk of physical harm, sexual harassment, hate crime or discrimination.
For many of these groups there is a double effect of this inequality. Several groups described above not only get less of the wellbeing benefit of connecting with nature as a result of these access barriers, but they are precisely the groups within our population who are 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 wellbeing. 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”.
In Scotland there is a key opportunity arising from the Holyrood election this year, with the potential for the next Scottish Government to further develop policy and provide funding that supports connection with nature, building on the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy and the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019. There is also a clear public appetite in Scotland for change, with three quarters (72%) of respondents to our poll in Scotland indicating that they think the Government should be aiming to encourage people to do more to connect with nature.
Here, we present eight policy recommendations to the Scottish Government which would support connection with nature for everyone:
- We call on the Scottish Government to focus on connection with nature in the formation of all policies relating to nature and mental health. Connection with nature should be the measure of each policy’s efficacy, rather than measuring the time spent in nature or the number of visits to nature.
- A National Green Spaces Strategy should be introduced to guarantee safe and accessible green spaces for all to transform Scotland’s relationship with the outdoors and improve health outcomes.
- Local authorities should develop local Green Spaces Strategies in line with the national strategy, and in partnership with local communities.
- Local authorities should publish annual reports on the levels of cleanliness, safety and accessibility of parks and beaches.
- The Scottish Government should ensure that masterplans for new housing in urban areas include high quality greenspace and blue-green infrastructure.
- The Scottish Government should rapidly expand curriculum-led and adventure approaches to outdoor learning to boost levels of wellbeing, reduce stress and improve concentration and attainment.
- The Scottish Government should invest in food growing and horticulture community groups that help boost empowerment, reduce stress, promote healthy eating, and tackle social isolation.
- The Scottish Government should kick-start outdoor hospitality by incentivising environmentally friendly outdoor hospitality space.