Water Cooler: Why does it feel good to be in nature?

Nature has always been associated with good health. In today’s lifestyle marketing, “natural” is nearly used as a synonym of “healthy.” Open-air classrooms were popular in the early 1900s as a way to teach ill school children while exposing them to plenty of fresh air and sunshine per the medical advice of the time. Nineteenth-century public asylums began to be designed with acres of surrounding gardens and natural landscapes.

Your parents likely told you some time or another to take a hike and get some fresh air – it’s good for you. As an adult you realize they were right. Getting out in nature just feels great. It’s something residents of the Inland Northwest constantly attest to.

The popular consensus is that nature is good for you, not only physically but mentally as well. There is a large body of research that supports this idea. A 2011 study found exercising in a natural environment made participants feel more revitalized than when compared to exercising indoors.

A study done by the Rotman Research Institute in 2012 found time in nature led to significant cognitive gains in mentally healthy adults as well as adults struggling with major depressive disorder.

Researchers at the University of Michigan studied breast cancer patients and found that regular exposure to natural environments improved their capacity to focus their attention during treatments which typically induced mental and physical fatigue.

A 2009 study published in Environment and Behavior found that exposure to nature, whether it be walking in natural settings or watching videos of them, increased the participant’s ability to reflect on life problems and resulted in more positive emotions.

One 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois studied 432 children from ages 5-18 who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and found they experienced significant reductions in symptoms when doing activities in natural environments compared to other settings.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Essex conducted an analysis of multiple studies and concluded short and physically intense periods of exposure to nature were effective in improving self-esteem when compared to other forms of outdoor exposure, although all were beneficial. They noted the presence of water had an even greater effect.

Despite the plethora of evidence supporting nature’s benefits for mental health, researchers are still not sure what exact mechanisms are behind it, though there are a few theories.

One train of thought propounds that nature helps our brains recover from stress and attention fatigue caused by time spent in stimulating urban environments that are full of sights, sounds, smells and other interactions that all compete for our attention.

Other researchers argue some of the mental benefits of nature come from the increased sense of connectedness people feel to the natural world when outdoors. Perhaps this is why it is so common for people to talk about nature in terms of connecting with it. The biophilia hypothesis suggests humans have an innate desire to seek connection with other forms of life and the natural world because the vast majority of our evolution took place in natural environments.

Such a broad idea is hard to clinically prove, but social psychology has shown there is no denying how crucial it is for humans to feel a sense of belonging.

The science supports the universal consensus nature is soothes the mind and your overall mental well-being, so don’t hesitate to treat yourself to some time in the great outdoors.