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Time and again, studies have shown that exposure to nature can improve human mental health and well-being. A new study from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology dug a little deeper, examining what kind of nature experiences were associated with greater feelings of well-being during the COVID pandemic. Their findings, published in the journal man and nature, suggest that enjoying nature close to home was associated with greater feelings of well-being, compared to longer and more intense nature excursions, or experiencing second-hand nature through various media.
“I think what really resonates with me about this work is the importance of being able to have a bit of nature nearby that you can access even for a short time,” said Tina Phillips, lead author and assistant director. from the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature at Cornell Lab.
Although engagement with nearby nature came out on top as being associated with a higher overall positive outcome of nature exposure, there was no correlation with loneliness. Indirect experiences of nature through various forms of media had the least beneficial associations.
“I think the biggest surprise was that nature trips were not correlated with better well-being,” Phillips said. “Loneliness was worse for people who engaged in more of these activities, the emotional impact of the pandemic was worse, and reported mental health was worse. The other thing that surprised me was that, overall, age was the strongest predictor of positive wellness outcomes from exposure to nature.
The authors surveyed over 3,200 US residents in October 2020, 6 months into the pandemic, when many lockdowns were still in place. They asked people to rate their level of loneliness, repetitive negative thoughts, mental well-being and how emotionally affected they were by the pandemic.
The responses given were analyzed along with the frequency with which respondents participated in three types of nature engagement during the pandemic:
- Nature nearby: activities near the house, such as gardening, walking, observing nature through a window and bird watching;
- Natural media: indirect exposure through reading, nature documentaries and wildlife cameras;
- Nature outings: more intense experiences requiring planning and travel, such as fishing trips, hunting, hiking and kayaking.
The study authors hypothesized that, based on the existing literature, any type of exposure to nature should be associated with higher levels of self-reported well-being. Note that this type of research does not establish a cause and effect relationship between study variables, only that the two often occur together. It is not necessarily the case that one variable predicts another.
Co-author Nancy Wells, a professor at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, says the survey also highlighted ongoing social justice issues around access to nature.
“The pandemic has laid bare a host of societal issues and inequalities,” Wells said. “It is often those who need it the most who have the least access to nature nearby. Everyone must be able to access the natural environment a short distance from their home. We can make this a reality by protecting natural lands, creating parks, and implementing policies and programs to ensure access for all.
Reaping the mental and emotional benefits of nature doesn’t have to take a lot of time.
“We can’t stress enough the power of spending even 10 minutes outside,” Phillips said. “There is so much evidence that taking the time to be outdoors in any nearby slice of nature can be so beneficial.”
“We hope we can all learn from the pandemic and this study in the future,” Wells added, “by making time in nature a regular part of our routine.”
Thanks to Cornell University for providing this news.
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