Watching Nature on TV Can Boost Mood and Ease Boredom

It's an option when circumstances — like a pandemic — keep you inside.

man watching trees on TV
Watching high-quality nature shows can ease boredom. EzumeImages / Getty Images

There’s loads of research that shows that spending time in nature is good for your health and well-being. Studies show that a simple walk in the woods can lead to better sleep and lower stress and living near green space can even help you live longer

But not everyone lives near a park. And not everyone can easily get outdoors. So, what happens when you bring nature into your home via TV? A new study finds that a virtual nature experience can have some of the same effects.

In the study, researchers from the University of Exeter in the U.K. found that watching high-quality nature shows on television can boost moods, lower negative emotions, and help ease boredom linked with being alone indoors.

The researchers wanted to see if the same positive impacts of being out in nature would translate to experiencing nature virtually, study co-author Alex Smalley, PhD student and researcher on the Virtual Nature project, tells Treehugger.

“We were particularly interested in alleviating boredom because it's a negative state commonly experienced by older people in care homes, a target population for this kind of intervention,” he says.

Battling Boredom with Coral Reefs

For the study, researchers brought 96 adults into a lab and induced boredom by having them watch a four-minute video of a man discussing his work at an office supply company. In a monotone voice, the man described a conversation with a client, eating lunch at his desk, and how they determine the prices of products.

Then, the study participants experienced scenes of an underwater coral reef scene from the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” series. They either watched it on TV, watched with a virtual reality headset using 360-degree video, or watched with a virtual reality headset using computer-generated interactive graphics. 

Researchers found that all three methods minimized negative feelings like sadness and significantly lowered boredom. The interactive virtual reality experience actually increased positive feelings, such as happiness, and strengthened the connections people said they had to nature.

The results of the findings were published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

“I think we were most surprised that just watching nature on TV led to positive changes across each of our measures, suggesting that even short, five-minute bursts of watching natural history programming can have an effect on well-being,” Smalley says.

Originally, the impetus behind the study was to research benefits for people who were stuck indoors, such as those in nursing homes or people recovering from illness. But there are entirely new positive ramifications in today’s world due to COVID-19.

“We never imagined a pandemic would mean the results might apply to such a wide swathe of the global population,” Smalley says. “We'd always recommend trying to get out into nature wherever possible but for those who can't, our findings suggest that digital experiences of nature could provide a short-term fix.”