When I was a girl, I gravitated to the trees in my yard during playtime. There, I found a sense of serenity and calm. To this day, if I am wrestling with a difficult decision or seeking solace, I head out among the trees.
Research shows “nature connectedness” is likely important to your optimal mental health. This information may seem like a no-brainer, especially in our local culture, which places great significance on Earth Day. For most of us, the benefit of interacting with nature is obvious without scientific research. But today, in a country where citizens spend 90 percent of their time indoors, the benefit of “grabbing some fresh air” is being explored by psychologists.
“Nature connectedness” is being studied by mental health researchers using psychological scales that measure the degree to which individuals relate to the natural world. The effect “nature connectedness” has on mental health is being studied in a relatively new field of study called “eco-psychology” and “eco-therapy.”
Eco-therapy can be used by mental health professionals to improve mental health outcomes for clients. Nature connectedness has been correlated with alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression, improving attention, enhancing personal growth, as well as cultivating a sense of purpose. Examples of eco-therapy include joining a community garden, horseback riding, visiting a botanical garden or going on a camping trip.
The key theoretical principle in this line of thought is the biophilia principle. First acknowledged in 1984 by Edward O. Wilson, the principle suggests human beings have not only a psychological connection to the natural world, but a biological connection as well. Nevertheless, the biophilia principle is still largely considered a hypothesis, and recommendations to spend time outdoors are still not accepted as mainstream mental health practices. Many experts are stepping up to fill in the research gap to reveal what many of us take for granted: There is an innate human love for the natural world.
Eco-psychological theory asserts human beings evolved in natural settings, not urban or built environments, and therefore, humans have a natural longing to spend time in natural spaces.
In Western culture, we are largely taught to think of natural spaces as “natural resources,” mere constructs of an economic system.
One unexpected outcome of eco-therapy is a desire to protect natural spaces. When people realize how much they truly love the natural world and how beneficial it is to them, they sometimes pursue conservation efforts for the first time in their lives.
According to Dr. Susan Clayton, many people are worried about the threat of environmental “doom,” often due to climate change, which is an anxiety state termed “eco-anxiety.” Ironically spending time in natural spaces may actually help assuage those feelings of anxiety. We may feel calmer when actively working with others toward solutions to shared problems. Such experiences can give us a more meaningful connection to one another and the Earth.