I’ve just got to get through extended Christmas festivities – and subsequent mopping up – and I’ll be off on my hols. What am I doing this year? Same as most years: heading for the bush. This time we’re going to the mountains.
As a denizen of the inner city I’ve long had a great desire to get out into the country whenever possible. Get into the grass and trees, where the air is clean and the sleeping seems better.
There’s a place we rent not far up the coast that backs onto a national park. I call it Lyrebird Lodge. And even when we go overseas I often find the country towns beat the big cities.
In recent times I’ve been singing the praises of big cities: how efficient they are and how they promote creativity and productivity, particularly in the era of the information economy.
But cities have their dark side and insufficient grass and trees is it. That’s more than just a personal preference. Environmental psychologists and others have been gathering impressive evidence of the health-given properties of greenery.
It’s evidence to support the American biologist E. O. Wilson’s “biophilia” hypothesis: because humans evolved in natural environments and have lived separate from nature only relatively recently in their evolutionary history, people possess an innate need to affiliate with other living things.
Research published last year found that people who live in urban areas with more green space tend to report greater wellbeing – less mental distress and higher life satisfaction – than city dwellers who don’t have parks, gardens or other green space nearby.
Mathew White and colleagues at the University of Exeter Medical School used a national longitudinal survey of households in Britain to track the experience of more than 10,000 people for 17 years to 2008.
They found that, on average, the positive effect on wellbeing was equivalent to about one-third of the difference between being married rather than unmarried and a 10th of the effect of being employed rather than unemployed.
A different study followed the experience of more than 1000 people over five years, in which time some moved to greener urban areas and some to less green areas. The results showed that, on average, people who moved to greener areas felt an immediate improvement in their mental health. This boost could still be measured three years later.
“These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities,” the lead author of the study said.
A study from Canada began by summarising all the various benefits from contact with nature that other research had found: it can restore people’s ability to pay attention, improve concentration in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and speed recovery from illness. It may even reduce the risk of dying.
Yet another study notes that the first hospitals in Europe were infirmaries in monastic communities where a garden was considered an essential part of the environment in that it supported the healing process.
This study of studies, from Norway, says that “in most cultures, both present and past, one can observe behaviour reflecting a fondness for nature. For example, tomb painting from ancient Egypt, as well as remains found in the ruins of Pompeii, substantiate that people brought plants into their houses and gardens more than 2000 years ago”.
Many studies find health benefits from contact with nature. The Norwegian paper says a key element in this may be nature’s stress-reducing effect. Stress plays a role in the causes and development of cardiovascular diseases, anxiety disorders and depression.
Contact with nature may help “simply by being consciously or unconsciously ‘pleasing to the eye'”. Office employees seem to compensate for lack of a window view by introducing indoor plants or even just pictures of nature. One study found that having a view to plants from the work station decreased the amount of self-reported sick leave.
One of my favourite blog sites, PsyBlog, conducted by the British psychologist Dr Jeremy Dean, notes research estimating that people now spend 25 per cent less time in nature than they did 20 years ago. Instead, recreational time is often spent surfing the internet, playing video games and watching movies.
But this is more up my line: Dean reports a study finding that taking group walks in nature is associated with better mental wellbeing and lower stress and depression. The study evaluated a British program called Walking for Health, and involved nearly 2000 participants, divided into two matched groups of those who took part in the walks and those who didn’t.
The walks, which extended over three months, combined three elements, each of which you’d expect to make people feel better: walking, being in nature and being with other people.
Those who seemed to benefit most were those who’d been through a recent stressful life event, such as divorce, bereavement or a serious illness.
“Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression,” one of the study’s authors said.
You beaut. When I get to the mountains I’m hoping to do a lot of bush walking.
This article first appeared on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald – Comment’ on 24 December 2014.