Researchers from the UK found that people with the lowest sense of wellbeing benefited the most from being outdoors.
There is nothing like a walk in the woods or a few hours spent puttering in a garden to make one feel happier. That nature has healing power is well known, but it's especially interesting when this power is quantified, as was done in a recent study from the University of Essex.
A group of 139 people was recruited to volunteer in natural conservation programs run by the Wildlife Trusts across England. Volunteers helped with projects that included nature walks, conservation work, and building bird tables and bug hotels.
At the beginning of the study, 39 percent of participants reported low mental wellbeing relative to average levels in the UK. (Wellbeing measures how people feel about themselves.) By the end of the 12-week volunteer period, that rate had dropped to 19 percent. Half of the people who started with low mental wellbeing improved after 12 weeks, and two-thirds noticed improvement within six weeks. Across all volunteers, there was a "statistically significant improvement of 8 percent in wellbeing scores."
Participants reported "enhanced level of positivity, health, nature relatedness, activity, and increased contact with green space." They especially enjoyed participating in conservation activities and learning new skills, which is a well-known way to improve wellbeing.
The Guardian quoted several of the volunteers, saying, "Getting out in nature makes me feel like I’ve been born again"; "It has stopped me living under a duvet all day"; and "It has helped my depression and agitation and helped me to wind down and make decisions about my life."
As Dominic Higgins of the Wildlife Trusts points out:
"The evidence is loud and clear – volunteering in wild places while being supported by Wildlife Trust staff has a clear impact on people’s health. It makes people feel better, happier and more connected to other people. The Department of Health should take note – our findings could help reduce the current burden on the NHS [National Health Service] because they illustrate a new model of caring for people that does not rely solely on medication and traditional services."
Meanwhile, green spaces are becoming harder to find in most urban areas. Much has been sold off to developers in the UK in recent years; parks and playgrounds lack funding for maintenance; and poor transportation networks make it challenging for urban dwellers to access these places.
Studies such as this one are useful for policy-makers, medical professionals, and educators to understand how truly powerful nature can be, and how important its role in human lives is. Hopefully this will shape decisions about conservation and access to green space.