Chris Baraniuk, Knowable Magazine
As Covid-19 descended across the world, people sought refuge in gardens, parks and the woods. But it’s hard to measure how being in nature affects our well-being — and how we can best reap its rewards.
Among the many natural wonders, big and small, that have inspired activist and writer Dara McAnulty during the pandemic are the Mourne Mountains. The range of granite peaks, which majestically (and famously) sweep down to the sea, are visible from McAnulty’s home in the town of Newcastle, Northern Ireland. “Being able to see the mountains every single day, they’re almost like your guardian protectors, in a sense. Rising up. Rearing up from the stone,” he says.
Better still, perhaps, are the red kites, beautiful birds of prey subject to a long-running conservation project in Northern Ireland. Just 22 breeding pairs are currently thought to be present in the country. But McAnulty has witnessed flocks of them in flight near his home, at a location he says must be kept secret. “When you see a flock of red kites, it’s like, oh my god, it’s ridiculous. It sort of sucks the breath right out of you,” he says.
In his first book, Diary of a Young Naturalist , to be published in the US in June, McAnulty, who is 17 and autistic, describes how he stores up his best memories of days out bird-watching or rambling through forest parks to act as talismans against the anxiety or feelings of despair with which he sometimes wrestles. Something as simple as staring into a pond for hours can make him feel restored. “It must be good for the mind,” he writes.
The idea that nature can fortify one’s mental and physical health was already catching on well before the pandemic. But now it is receiving heightened attention, from scientists as well as the general public. Even as vaccines are beginning to protect millions of people from the virus, some researchers argue that we may need an accompanying dose of nature to soften the pandemic’s subtler threats — the disruption, the isolation, the fear. If nature is a tonic, now would be a particularly good time to investigate how best to take it.
Among those who have both noticed and taken part in the global trend toward nature appreciation during the pandemic is Anne Guerry, an ecologist with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University. She has been working remotely from her home in Washington state, near a huge forest of evergreens, oozing with moss and heady aromas, where birds gather and Douglas squirrels scamper in the trees. “Every chance I had on phone calls for work where I didn’t have to be at my computer, I was out walking because I found that that’s what kept me going,” she says.
She was far from the only one to take these steps. Guerry points to an article published in December in the journal PLOS ONE in which researchers at the University of Vermont surveyed about 350 visitors to parks in and around Burlington, Vermont, from March to June 2020. A majority, 69 percent, said they had increased or greatly increased their visits to these parks during the pandemic. And about 26 percent had either never or very rarely accessed those same places prior to the emergence of Covid-19.
Access to nature — even at a distance, through the windows of one’s home — appears to have buoyed people during the darkest days of the pandemic. A February paper in Science of the Total Environment examined the emotional responses to lockdown of some 3,400 survey respondents in Spain, where strict rules meant they were barred from leaving home except in very specific circumstances, such as to buy groceries. People whose windows afforded them vistas of woodland or the coast, for example, were more likely to report happiness than those who could not see natural spaces from their homes.
But to what extent can we really say that nature, specifically, is good for us? In 2013, Guerry and colleagues looked at hundreds of publications that examined nature’s effects on well-being and synthesized the findings in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources. From experiments that compared the mood of people who lived near green space to those who didn’t, to qualitative studies charting people’s emotional and spiritual responses to nature, the review cataloged a wide range of benefits. Some studies found that participants lived longer, while others found evidence for reduced stress, or better performance on tests of memory and attention. “The balance of evidence indicates conclusively that knowing and experiencing nature makes us generally happier, healthier people,” the authors write.
Questions remain about what is really going on here. Is there something inherent in nature that confers these benefits, or do people who live in green areas just happen to be richer and healthier? If someone changes their behavior to experience nature more often, is it really the forest that restores them, or the novelty of socializing outdoors? Even if nature itself is the driving force, people might wonder what it is about forests, oceans and wildlife that can have a positive physiological or psychological effect. And how long can that effect last? “Everywhere we turned, there were those kinds of questions,” says Guerry.
Establishing a causal link between nature and good health is tricky, notes Mathew White, a social psychologist at the University of Vienna. “You can’t really do a double-blind study here [where some participants unknowingly get a placebo] like you can with a vaccine, because people know which condition they’re in,” he says. Once someone has stepped onto a woodland trail, you can’t take away from them the fact that they’ve just been immersed in nature.
Nonetheless, researchers have tried to tease out whether there’s something special about nature immersion compared to other potentially beneficial activities. In a 2015 study, for example, 38 people were randomly assigned to two groups and asked to go for a 90-minute walk. One group went to an urban location, the other to an area of grassland dotted with oak trees and shrubs. Those who took the nature walk reported decreased rumination, a term used by psychologists to describe a pattern of typically negative thinking that is sometimes linked to depression and other mental illnesses. In the same subjects, brain scans showed decreased activity in a brain region called the subgenual prefrontal cortex, involved in emotional regulation. By pairing questionnaires with physiological measures like this, researchers can avoid depending solely on participants’ own reports, which can be unreliable.
Even listening to nature can have physiological effects. In a 2016 study, researchers split 40 participants into three groups at random, and had them listen to either silence, classical music or the lull of ocean waves. Only those in the ocean waves group registered a statistically significant decrease in pulse rate, muscle tension and self-reported stress, the team found.
Other researchers have used satellite imagery to study how proximity to parks, gardens and other types of greenspaces — even agricultural areas — might affect people’s health. In Austria, for example, researchers measured the blood pressure of 555 adults, and assessed the amount and type of greenery near their homes. Those living in areas with higher overall greenness were 30 to 40 percent less likely to have unusually high or low blood pressure. It was having greenness close to the home, particularly within 100 meters (say, in a backyard), that seemed to make the difference — not the type of green space in question.
David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, has long sought to pinpoint physiological changes in our brains and bodies caused by nature. Studies by his group and others have found that being in nature lowers blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, and it also settles brain activity into patterns associated with better problem solving. Such effects are generally associated with improved health, but Strayer acknowledges that the research doesn’t yet definitively show long-term health benefits. Still, existing work does show that living in areas with more green space, or traveling to and spending time in places such as nature parks, is associated with those important physiological effects.
Why nature in particular may be having such effects remains a mystery. Strayer speculates that there may be some evolutionary basis for our feeling more at ease and competent in nature. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the sight of waves washing on a beach, for example. Does that rhythmic motion appeal to our brains on some primordial level, setting gray matter to rights? “There’s something about that gentle flow that tends to just resonate with our brains,” Strayer says.
The benefits of short-term nature contact are reasonably well established, write researchers in the Annual Review of Public Health, but assessing the long-term implications of access to green space is much more difficult. That’s partly because such work may depend on other organizations, such as municipal authorities, making the effort to improve nature access — by building a new park or trail, for instance. Even then, controlling or randomizing people’s use of such a facility over multiple years is difficult.
Despite the empirical challenges, White, for one, argues there’s already enough research showing that contact with nature is linked to better health. The questions for him are, what kind of contact with nature profits us most, and how long do we need to spend surrounded by the great outdoors before we feel better?
He and colleagues asked this very question in a study published in Scientific Reports in 2019. Using a survey of nearly 20,000 people in England, they found that those who spent at least two weekly hours in nature were most likely to report good health or a high feeling of well-being. Whether people made one long visit or several smaller ones did not seem to make a difference.
The recognition that a “dose” of nature may be good for you has led to doctors in some places, including Scotland and the United States, to prescribe time in green or wild places for patients with illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and stress. But should people feel that accessing nature is a chore, a sort of box-ticking exercise, then its benefits could evaporate.
“Nature connectedness is potentially more important than just being there,” says White. He notes that there are various initiatives to foster closer engagement with nature, rather than just proximity to it. The UK’s National Trust, an organization that owns and maintains country estates, parks and nature reserves, has compiled a list of 50 things for children to do in nature — from skipping stones to hunting for fossils. The principle, suggests White, of experiencing nature while being mindful of one’s investment could help its power filter through.
This thought is echoed by Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. He recalls a morning walk when he chanced upon the sight a little egret, a long-legged, white-feathered bird, and made an effort to enjoy observing it in that moment. It was the blackness of the bird’s beak against its white feathers, and the green grass beyond, that captivated him. “Intentional engagement with nature seems especially powerful,” he says.
Last year, Pocock and colleagues launched a study to find out whether people benefited from engaging in a nature-themed citizen science project — counting butterflies, for example — during the pandemic. The study enrolled 1,300 people across the UK, and while it has not yet been published, Pocock says the preliminary data suggest that engaging in the counts was linked to a stronger sense of nature connectedness, as well as to improved well-being and happiness among participants.
But passive experiences may also yield subtle benefits. One 2018 study found that children learning in an outdoor classroom stuck to their schoolwork more reliably than those in an indoor classroom. “Our goal was to create an everyday space, an everyday nature contact,” says lead author Erin Largo-Wight, an environmental health promoter at the University of North Florida. “Not spectacular nature.”
Perhaps the way forward is to double up on both these strategies: Make nature more accessible in general, a frequent encounter — and think about how to appreciate or engage with it in ways that are genuinely rewarding.
That may be possible even in contexts where access to green space is highly restricted. For instance, the APM Terminals shipping company in the Netherlands recently launched an initiative to provide “floating garden packages” to mariners stuck on their vessels due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. The packages contain plants, pots and seeds so that the seafarers can establish and then tend to small indoor gardens on their ships.
Designing urban spaces that embrace nature rather than shut it out could be a powerful way to improve access, says Guerry. “Sixty percent of urban areas that will exist in 2050 haven’t been built yet,” she notes. “The way we design and redesign cities is going to determine the health and well-being of billions of people.”
She and colleagues are working with national and local authorities around the world on schemes that benefit both cities and their residents. In San Francisco, for example, they have explored the possibility of restoring coastal marshes and beaches, a move intended to protect urban land from sea level rise while also providing more green space for city dwellers to roam.
If outdoor spaces become easier to access in the near future, perhaps people will find it easier to hold on to the nature experiences they embraced during the pandemic and retain a desire to spend time outdoors, even as things go back to normal.
For McAnulty, it’s been satisfying to see the public turn to nature en masse lately: “I’ve been doing that for years,” he says. Even in cities, glimpses of the natural world, like a beetle crawling across a path or the song of a particular bird on the wind, can soothe and inspire anyone, he adds, just as they have him. The pandemic has taken so much from us. But it could also leave us with a new appreciation of how nature can stiffen our resolve. Give us our buttress roots.
“To be able to take something from it would probably be a good thing,” says McAnulty. If we can do that, the pandemic won’t just end up being a time spent in stasis, he suggests. We’ll have grown as human beings.
This article is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery , an ongoing Knowable Magazine series exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.