Health Benefits of Nature
KeywordsUrban Environment Natural Scene Mental Fatigue High Life Satisfaction Mood Regulation
Physical and mental well-being may be fostered by being in nature, viewing natural scenes, and bringing natural elements (e.g., indoor plants and natural light) into built environment.
The work of several scholars in the area of human-environment relations confirms the notion that contact with nature may be beneficial for human health and well-being. This idea is very intuitive and is reflected in the fact that most people, regardless of their nationality or culture, prefer natural environments over urban environments (Parsons 1991) and that the majority of places that people consider favorite or restorative are natural places (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). While the relation between contact with nature and human well-being may seem quite obvious and self-explanatory, there are many nuances to be taken into consideration.
In most studies, the effects of natural environments are compared to the effects of urban environments, which usually pose some specific health hazards for people, including pollution, crowding, sensory overstimulation, noise, etc. Natural environments may be beneficial in comparison just because they lack those exact sources of health risks. On the other hand, adverse effects of being in nature are rarely investigated since contemporary humans rarely face the same challenges that our ancestors had been exposed to during the most of our evolutionary past (e.g., encounters with predators, stress and injury from exposure to adverse environmental conditions, etc.). Thus, the scope of research on health benefits of nature is framed by the needs and lifestyle of contemporary humans, majority of which lives in urban environments with limited access to nature.
The most investigated benefits of contact with nature include enhancing people’s ability to cope with stress and illness, fostering recovery from metal fatigue, and mood regulation.
Stress and Recovery
There is ample evidence that exposure to natural environments enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress and recover from illness and injury.
One of the fundamental studies in this area of research found that patients with a natural view from their hospital room recovered faster, spent less time in hospital, had better evaluation from nurses, required fewer painkillers, and had less postoperative complications after gall bladder surgery compared with those who viewed an urban scene after the same surgery (Ulrich 1984). Subsequent studies explained the mechanism behind these effects: natural settings elicit a response that includes a component of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with the restoration of physical energy (Ulrich et al. 1991a).
Similar effects are found in other potentially stress-eliciting environments and situations. Access to nature in the workplace is related to lower levels of perceived job stress, higher levels of job satisfaction, and fewer reported illnesses and headaches (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989). Prison cell window views of nature are associated with a lower frequency of stress symptoms in inmates, including digestive illnesses and headaches (Moore 1981). Recovery from commuter stress in car drivers was quicker for participants who viewed nature-dominated drives than participants who viewed artifact-dominated drives, and the former also experienced greater immunization to subsequent stress (Parsons et al. 1998).
Kaplan and Kaplan described “restorative environments” as those settings that foster recovery from mental fatigue (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989) (Kaplan 1992a, Kaplan 1992b). The main four elements of every restorative environment according to them include fascination (an involuntary form of attention requiring effortless interest), a sense of being away (temporary escape from one’s usual setting or situation), extent or scope (a sense of being part of a larger whole), and compatibility with an individual’s inclinations (opportunities provided by the setting and whether they satisfy the individual’s purposes). Many natural environments and especially urban parks provide an opportunity for restorative experiences due to their ability to satisfy those four elements.
Even a view of nature may have restorative effects. In a study by Tennessen and Cimprich (1995) students who occupied dormitory rooms with natural views from their windows showed an increased capacity for directed attention when compared to students who occupied rooms with built views (views of buildings), so the authors concluded that views of nature may indeed be related to better attention restoration experiences.
Attention restoration effect of viewing natural scenes has been replicated in numerous studies since then, and some practical implications have been purposed both in prevention of mental health and in therapy of various disorders (e.g., attention deficit disorder).
Mood and Outlook on Life
A review of the literature on the psychological response to nature concluded that nature elicits feelings of pleasure, sustained attention or interest, and relaxed wakefulness and mitigates negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety (Rohde and Kendle 1994). It is noted that, in general, people have a more positive outlook on life and higher life satisfaction when in proximity to nature, particularly in urban areas (Kaplan and Kaplan 1989).
From Research to Practice
Environmental approach may be considered along with other health-promoting interventions in fostering and recovering human health and well-being. This approach as a preventive strategy may include both behavioral interventions, e.g., developing healthier habits (like going to nature frequently, tending a garden, keeping indoor plants and animals as pets), as well as design interventions in built environment (such as adding more greenery and water features into urban environment, planning buildings with natural light, allowing employees to keep photographs of nature in offices, etc.). Recovery from various illnesses may be fostered through nature-based therapy like wilderness, horticultural, and animal-assisted therapy.
There is empirical evidence that beneficial effects of contact with nature for humans include fostering attention restoration, enhancing ability to cope with stress and illness, and mood regulation. Since various mental disorders are among leading contemporary health challenges, contact with nature may be included as preventative and restorative strategy in the domain of mental health and as an aid to recovery from physical illness.
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