The Importance of Nature for Our Health

Scientific research provides powerful evidence of the importance of nature for our health. Time spent in the Great Outdoors reduces the stress hormone cortisol and increases our sense of well-being.

  • Nature Scene
    Viewing nature scenes, such as this sunrise at Picture Lake in the North Cascade Mountains, fosters positive thoughts and lowers anger and aggression.
    Photo by Sasha Buzco
  • Shinrin-Yoku
    Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term meaning "basking in the forest." Japanese researchers found reduced levels of stress hormones in subjects who took walks among trees.
    Photo by Thinkstock/Mike Powell
  • Windowsill Plant
    Keeping even a plant or two within view of a workspace has been shown to reduce the amount of sick leave workers take.
    Photo by maXxImages/Peter Carlsson

  • Nature Scene
  • Shinrin-Yoku
  • Windowsill Plant

As Western society has developed, we have retreated from the Great Outdoors, placing greater importance on technological pursuits and human creations. Mounting scientific evidence reveals that by pushing ourselves away from nature, we not only have distanced ourselves from crisis-level environmental problems, but also have begun to lose contact with a vital mental-health tool. By denying ourselves time in green space, we risk rejecting an essential part of our heritage — a truth that, ironically, we are now able to see more clearly because of advances in medical technology.

The Science of Green Space

Healers within various medical systems, from India’s Ayurvedic medicine to traditional Chinese medicine, have long advocated for the importance of nature. Indeed, in many cultures, it’s regarded as a form of medicine. But the notion that trees and flowers can influence psychological well-being remained largely untested in a scientific way until 1979, when behavioral scientist Roger S. Ulrich examined the mental influence of nature scenes on stressed students. His psychological testing showed differences in mental states and outlooks after the students viewed various environmental scenes. The nature scenes increased positive feelings of affection, playfulness, friendliness and elation. Urban views, on the other hand, significantly cultivated one emotion in these students: sadness. Viewing nature tended to reduce feelings of anger and aggression, and urban scenes tended to increase these feelings.

Encouraged by his findings, Ulrich set up a similar experiment to measure brain activity in unstressed, healthy adults. His team discovered that seeing natural landscapes was associated with increased production of serotonin, a chemical that operates within the nervous system. Almost all antidepressant medications are thought to work by enhancing the availability of serotonin for use in nerve cell communication, hence its moniker, “the happy chemical.” A follow-up study showed that green spaces acted as a sort of visual Valium: The nature scenes fostered positive thoughts, and lowered post-stress anger and aggression.

Many other contemporary researchers have used objective testing to support Ulrich’s pioneering work:

  • In one study, older adults in a residential care center in Texas engaged in the same mental activities in two contexts — once in a garden setting and again in an indoor classroom. The participants were shown to produce lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol while in the garden.
  • The presence of plants in a room, particularly flowering plants, can enhance recovery from the stress induced by an emotional video, quickly bringing brain wave activity back to normal, researchers at Kansas State University found.
  • A research group from Taiwan reported that rural farm scenes are associated with higher alpha-wave activity, particularly in the right part of the brain, which has been linked with creativity. Forest scenes and natural water scenes promote alpha-wave activity and decrease heart rate. Conversely, an increase in muscular tension has been associated with city scenes.

Shinrin-Yoku – Forest Bathing

Among the many reasons to preserve what’s left of our forests, the mental aspects stand tall. In 1982, the Forest Agency of the Japanese government premiered its shinrin-yoku plan. In Japanese, shinrin means forest, and yoku refers here to “basking in.” More broadly, it is defined as “taking in, with all of our senses, the forest atmosphere.” In 1990, Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University conducted a small test study of shinrin-yoku in the beautiful landscape of Yakushima, home to Japan’s most revered forests. Miyazaki found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in subjects after they took forest walks, compared with those who took walks in the controlled environment of the laboratory.

Since then, university and government researchers in Japan have collaborated on detailed investigations, including projects to evaluate physiological markers while subjects spend time among trees. These studies have confirmed that spending time in a forest setting can reduce psychological stress, depressive symptoms and hostility, while at the same time improving sleep, and increasing vigor and a feeling of liveliness. These subjective changes match objective results reported in nearly a dozen studies — that lower blood pressure, pulse rates and levels of cortisol accompany time spent amid trees and flowers.

11/11/2021 6:42:50 AM

Wonderful article. As John Locke said, nature is where freedom is complete.

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