Over the last year, many of us have rediscovered the importance of connecting with nature for our mental and physical wellbeing and during lockdowns, people across the world have found parks and gardens a source of calm and joy.
That comes as no surprise to the growing number of psychologists and ecologists studying the effects of nature on people’s mental health and well-being.
On evolutionary timescales, urban living is new. Our species has existed for at least 300,000 years, but the oldest cities are only some 6000 years old. Our late arrival into cities might help explain our continued affinity with nature and green spaces.
This was detailed by EO Wilson in 1984. His idea, termed biophilia, was that the environment in which early humans evolved shaped our brain in a way that means that we still respond positively to cues that would have enhanced survival for our ancestors, such as trees, plants, and lakes. This, he argued, is why being in nature makes us feel good.
Over the past few years there has been extensive research revealing clear links between increased exposure to nature and improved physical and mental health.
These include studies on specific psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorder. Using data from over 1,000 participants, a research team at the University of Exeter Medical School focused on two groups of people: those who moved to greener urban areas, and those who relocated to less green urban areas. They found that, on average, movers to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least 3 years after they moved. The study also showed that people relocating to a more built-up area suffered a drop in mental health.
Another study, which analysed data from over 10,000 individuals, explored the relationship between green space and well-being and found that, on average, individuals have lower mental distress and higher well-being when living in urban areas with more green space.
How might being in a green space improve mental wellbeing?
It may be that people living near green spaces may simply take more exercise, with this increase in physical health in turn improving their mental health. Researchers at the University of Essex have shown that “Green Exercise” itself has a benefit compared to, for example, exercising indoors.
Visiting green spaces can be associated with social activities, such as picnicking, and socialising has been shown to reduce loneliness, anxiety, and depression.
Research also shows that attractive public spaces are a catalyst for building cohesive neighbourhoods, and being part of a supportive community is good for mental health.
Some well-being effects seem to be entirely psychological. Researchers in Switzerland found that simply having a view of nature from your home can reduce your perception of noise – and the closer the green space, the bigger the effect. A Canadian study showed that having on average 10 more trees in a city block improves the way people percieve their own wellbeing in ways comparable to an increase in their annual personal income of $10,000 or being 7 years younger. In a study undertaken by Natural England, looking at access to nature during the pandemic, 83% of children interviewed said that being in nature made them very happy.
A 2019 study, involving almost 20,000 participants in England, concluded that at least 120 minutes a week of recreational nature contact was associated with good health or well-being.
As well as simply taking place in an green space, gardening as an activity itself can improve mental wellbeing.
Approximately 87 per cent of UK households have access to a domestic garden and 40 per cent of the total UK population actively participate in gardening. Out of 317 people who took part in table-top gardening sessions run by Thrive across Berkshire, Hampshire and south Oxfordshire, 80 per cent reported better mental health as a result, with 93 per cent saying they had improved their confidence and motivation.
There are several reasons for the positive effects of gardening on mental health.
- Increased physical activity. 30 minutes of daily exercise has been shown to be sufficient to improve and maintain wellbeing and mental health. And, as outlined earlier, researchers at Essex University, have demonstrated the additional benefits of being active in an outdoor space, so called ‘Green Exercise’ on wellbeing and mental health.
- Social Connections. Communal gardening projects offer a social context to the activity, which can counteract feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially for those with pre-existing learning difficulties and mental health. It provides an opportunity to meet new people, make new friends, connect with people to develop a network and draw support from like-minded people.
- Acceptance. Stress can come from trying to control the environment. Gardening teaches acceptance that not everything can be controlled and that there is beauty in letting nature/events take their course. And when something doesn’t turn out quite as planned, it is an opportunity to learn and try again rather than being evidence of failure.
- Connecting directly to the world around us. This can be as straightforward as feeling the soil in our hands and extends to eating the food that has been grown and harvested.
- Increased awareness of the world around us. For example, by being cognisant of the weather and the cycle of the seasons and tuning into birdsong rather than being distracted by, for example, technology.
- Nurturing. Gardening fosters a feeling of responsibility towards the plants being grown and takes people away from focussing on their own problems and needs.
- Diet. A garden yields the freshest produce possible and many studies have shown how diets rich in fresh food, and low in processed foods, can improve physical and mental wellbeing.
Community gardens combine the benefits of: being outside in a green space, the physical activity of gardening, the improved social contact and sharing an activity/interest with other people and from improvements to diet. Taken together, this leads to improved mental health and wellbeing of community gardeners.