Many studies have shown the mental health benefits of being surrounded by even a small amount of nature. Patients in hospitals recover faster if they can see trees from their hospital beds, having plants in your office or a view of greenery from your office window makes you less likely to phone in sick. Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian cites some new research that people who move to a home in a ‘greener’ location enjoy long-lasting mental health benefits.
It’s not hard to see the logic. For most of human’s evolutionary history, we’ve lived amongst grass and trees and plants, so it makes sense that we feel most comfortable living in the type of environment in which we evolved.
Unfortunately, the general trend is for people to have less contact with nature. Overall there is a huge flow of people from rural to urban areas, driven by poverty and a search for work.
Research also suggests people in rich countries are spending less time in nature. US researcher Oliver Pergams has found visits to national parks has fallen in the last two decades. People are camping, hunting and fishing less. In America, the membership of Boy Scouts, probably the most nature-focused organised youth activity, has halved since 1972.
In Australia and elsewhere, gardens have shrunk as homes get bigger and blocks are sub-divided: indoor space eating up outdoor space.
Other research has shown that children spend much less time outdoors than in previous generations, with the rise of screen-based activities and increased traffic risks. Richard Louv coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder for this in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods.
For many children, their main contact with “nature” is now their Saturday morning soccer match. But a football field hardly has the rich natural diversity to be found exploring in the woods.
This line of research shows that it’s not wealth that matters: people in a more natural environment are happier, healthier, less stressed and suffer less mental illness. I believe this is an issue the green movement needs to highlight, to show how being “greener” is not just about giving up things to save the planet, but brings direct, immediate benefits to us all. It counters the dominant mantra in western capitalist societies that economic growth and wealth are the only measures of wellbeing. There’s huge scope for greening cities, especially when you consider that a third of urban space is devoted to cars – roads, driveways, carparks. Reduce road space, increase trees, parks, community gardens, more outdoor education and gardening in schools, green walking and cycling corridors, green walls and roofs,
Right… I’m off to take my kids for a bushwalk.