Contact with Nature Can Enhance Mental Health of City Dwellers

A new U.K. study has found that people living in the city have higher levels of mental well-being when they are in contact with nature, including being outdoors, seeing views of the trees and the sky, and hearing the birds sing.

These beneficial effects of nature are particularly strong in people with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

For the study, researchers at King’s College London, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and the art foundation Nomad Projects developed a smartphone-based app called Urban Mind, which was designed to determine how exposure to natural features in cities can impact a person’s mental well-being.

The Urban Mind app monitored 108 participants who collectively completed 3,013 assessments over a one-week period. In each assessment, participants answered several questions about their current environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging was used to monitor their exact location throughout the one week trial.

The findings show significant immediate and time-lagged associations with better mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky, and birdsong. These effects were still evident several hours after exposure to trees, the sky, and birdsong had taken place, suggesting long-lasting benefits.

The researchers wanted to know whether the beneficial effects of nature might vary from one person to another, depending on their risk of developing poor mental health. To assess this, each participant was rated on “trait impulsivity,” a psychological measure of one’s tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences. Trait impulsivity can be a predictor of higher risk of developing addictive disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder.

This revealed that the positive impact of nature on mental well-being was greater in people with higher levels of trait impulsivity and a higher risk of developing mental health issues.

“These findings suggest that short-term exposure to nature has a measurable beneficial impact on mental well-being,” said Dr. Andrea Mechelli from the department of psychosis studies at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“The interaction of this effect with trait impulsivity is intriguing, as it suggests that nature could be especially beneficial to those individuals who are at risk of poor mental health. From a clinical perspective, we hope this line of research will lead to the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations.”

Source: King’s College London