The Gifts of Nature
Nature has many special gifts that can enhance our mental well-being. Spending time outdoors can make us feel happier and healthier and positively change our neurochemistry.
Nature: A Source of Connection
McLean’s Appleton program offers a gardening group as a therapeutic way to connect with the outdoors. According to Bolton, the initiative is very popular with the program’s patients, including some who are hesitant at first.
“Someone will say they’re not really a garden person,” she says. “But they’ll entertain it, and eventually, they’re the ones taking charge of things like watering and weeding.”
Experiencing nature in this way gives people an opportunity to connect with one another. In addition, hobbies like gardening also offer a sense of accomplishment.
People focus on growing fruits and vegetables that are then used for cooking. For many who are seeking purpose and positivity, this gives them something to be proud of.
“It’s a peacefulness; a calmness,” Bolton explains. “I think if you’re doing physical labor out there in nature, there’s a primitive biological reaction that can give you a lot of energy and strength as well.”
Paying Attention to the Natural World
Nature can improve our ability to focus. For example, a 2020 study examined how we use our attention in the outdoors.
Specifically, researchers looked at the issue of voluntary attention versus involuntary attention.
We use voluntary attention to ignore distractions and focus on daily tasks, such as working on a project or cooking dinner. In the short term, voluntary attention is helpful, but it’s difficult to maintain over time.
Nature, on the other hand, provides an opportunity for us to exercise involuntary attention. The natural world is filled with novel sights and sounds—vibrant foliage, skittering squirrels, and chirping birds—that effortlessly capture our awareness.
With involuntary attention, we are aware of our environment without preparing to react to it.
Because of this, according to a theory known as attention restoration, time spent in a natural environment gives us a chance to recharge our minds. Attention restoration can benefit anyone.
Members of the general population have performed better on attention tests after they spent time outdoors. However, attention restoration has compelling implications for people with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
For example, a study on green play settings found that children’s ADHD symptoms were more manageable after their activities took place in green spaces instead of other areas.
The benefits were equally robust whether the activities were active (such as a game of tag) or passive (reading a book, for example). In addition, the greener a child’s environment was, the more manageable their ADHD symptoms became.
Another study found that children diagnosed with ADHD concentrated better after taking a short walk in the park than a walk downtown or in a neighborhood.
The study’s authors concluded that the impact of a dose of nature was as large as the peak effect of extended-release methylphenidate, the medication most frequently prescribed to treat ADHD in children and adolescents.
Attention restoration can also be helpful for people who experience PTSD. The stimulating aspects of nature can take people’s minds off their day-to-day stresses. Nature’s calming effect also has particular relevance for people with trauma histories.
In the Mood to Experience the Outdoors
Several studies on nature and mental health, such as this 2019 paper from an ecosystem service perspective, link experiences in nature to improved mood, positive social interaction, and a sense of meaning and purpose.
Time spent outdoors benefits people with major depressive disorder (MDD). In a 2012 study, researchers observed 19 people with the condition. Random group members were assigned to take a 50-55-minute walk in a natural setting, while others spent the same amount of time walking in an urban area.
The study found that participants who took nature walks had significant increases in positive emotions and decreases in negative emotions following the activity. These benefits were seen even if participants continued to think about an unpleasant memory that was intentionally triggered at the beginning of the exercise.
Nature’s effect on mood can be attributed to several factors. One of these is the impact of attention restoration mentioned above. However, other changes taking place in the body can play a role.