Why Humans Need the Natural World
How the natural world helps us live longer, have better relationships, and be healthier, happier, and less stressed out – according to science…
Sadly, our modern sanitized, technological, and largely indoor lives have taken us far from our natural roots, and we are experiencing the consequences today in our health – both physical and mental.
Despite our distance from the natural world in modern day America, there is no question that humans were meant to be closely and deeply connected to the natural world. Many of us don’t need scientific proof to realize this, but if you have any doubts, the studies referenced below should remind you just how much we depend on nature for our health, longevity, and happiness!
Hundreds of studies have documented the power of nature to uplift our moods, calm our nerves, lower our blood pressure, relax and refresh our bodies, and much more.
In fact, the natural world may even improve our social lives! According to this article:
Over 100 studies have shown that being in nature, living near nature, or even viewing nature in paintings and videos can have positive impacts on our brains, bodies, feelings, thought processes, and social interactions. In particular, viewing nature seems to be inherently rewarding, producing a cascade of position emotions and calming our nervous systems. These in turn help us to cultivate greater openness, creativity, connection, generosity, and resilience.
In other words, science suggests we may seek out nature not only for our physical survival, but also because it’s good for our social and personal well-being.
Yes, oddly enough, even just looking at a picture of nature or watching a video can have a positive impact!
For example, in one study participants either viewed a few minutes of the inspiring documentary Planet Earth, a neutral video from a news program, or funny footage from Walk on the Wild Side. Watching a few minutes of Planet Earth led people to feel 46 percent more awe and 31 percent more gratitude than those in the other groups. This study and others like it tell us that even brief nature videos are a powerful way to feel awe, wonder, gratitude, and reverence—all positive emotions known to lead to increased well-being and physical health.
And these benefits don’t just extend to our own health and well-being, but also to our relationships with others…
Positive emotions have beneficial effects upon social processes, too—like increasing trust, cooperation, and closeness with others. Since viewing nature appears to trigger positive emotions, it follows that nature likely has favorable effects on our social well-being.
This has been robustly confirmed in research on the benefits of living near green spaces. Most notably, the work of Frances Kuo and her colleagues finds that in poorer neighborhoods of Chicago people who live near green spaces—lawns, parks, trees—show reductions in ADHD symptoms and greater calm, as well as a stronger sense of connection to neighbors, more civility, and less violence in their neighborhoods. A later analysis confirmed that green spaces tend to have less crime.
But there’s more… Exposure to the natural world not only improves our daily mood, health, and social well-being, but it may even make us live longer, according to this article:
A study just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people who live in “greener” areas, with more vegetation around, have a lower risk of mortality. The health benefits are likely thanks to factors such as improved mental health, social engagement and physical activity that come with living near green spaces.
The researchers found that people living in the greenest places — that is, people who had the most vegetation within 800 feet of their homes — had a 12 percent lower rate of mortality from any non-accidental cause than people living in the least green places. Specifically, they found that the relationship was strongest for deaths related to respiratory disease, cancer and kidney disease. These results were the same regardless of the participants’ income, weight or smoking status and also did not significantly change between urban and suburban locations.
This is good news for those living in cities – even if you live in an urban area, you can still experience the many benefits of nature just by surrounding yourself with as much living greenery as possible. Make it a point to spend time at the local park regularly. Go for walks in a tree-lined neighborhood. Get some houseplants!
And according to recent research published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives,
…“nature contact offers considerable promise in addressing a range of health challenges, including many — such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety — that are public health priorities. Nature contact offers promise both as prevention and as treatment” at all stages of life.
Furthermore, exposure to nature is likely cheaper than “conventional medical interventions,” safe, practical, and doesn’t require a highly-trained professional to dispense treatments. Green spaces designed to provide health benefits of nature also offer many co-benefits: they provide wildlife habitat, store stormwater, or offer shade, for example.
However, much remains unknown about the true restorative powers of nature on our health. For example, this article poses some important questions to consider:
We know that connecting with nature is good for us, but there are still many questions that need to be answered through more credible scientific research: What is the ideal “dose” of nature? What health conditions do these doses actually help with? Does duration and frequency of dose matter? How long do the benefits last? Does who you are and where you live impact how beneficial exposure to nature will be? And how does technology help or interfere with our connection to nature?
Though we may not have concrete answers to these questions right now, we can certainly enjoy the many benefits that nature provides – and take steps to protect and care for the natural world around us so that it can keep on providing these wonderful benefits for future generations as well.