Good news, urbanites! New research suggests that you don’t have to leave the city to reap some of the benefits of being in nature.
Simply listening to the chirping of birds, glimpsing the sky and even noticing a scrawny city tree can boost your mental well-being, according to a report published Tuesday in the journal Bioscience.
To come to this conclusion, the researchers used data collected by a smartphone app they created called Urban Mind. The app is free to download and available for both the iPhone and Android platforms.
Seven times a day for seven days, self-selected volunteers answered questions such as, “Are you indoors or outdoors?” “Can you see trees?” “Can you see the sky?” “Can you hear birds singing?” “Can you see or hear water?” and “Do you feel in contact with nature?”
At the same time, they were asked to log their overall emotional well-being.
Before using the app, volunteers were asked to submit basic demographic information including age, gender, education and occupation.
In addition, their mental well-being was assessed, as was their trait impulsivity, which is a measure of a person’s propensity to behave with little forethought or consideration of consequences. People who have higher trait impulsivity are more likely to develop mental health issues such as addiction, ADHD and bipolar disorder, the authors said.
For this study, which was part of a pilot program, the researchers relied primarily on 3,013 assessments from 108 participants.
The authors found that people were more likely to report higher states of well-being when they were outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birds singing, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature. Hearing and seeing water, however, did not have much of an effect.
The positive effects on well-being of seeing trees and seeing the sky also appeared to carry over to the next time the app asked for input, usually about 2 hours and 25 minutes later.
When people reported feeling in contact with nature, the effects lingered even longer. In this case, the authors found a statistical effect on mental well-being 4 hours and 50 minutes later.
The research team also found that the positive effects of encounters with nature in the urban environment are greater for people with a predisposition for mental illness.
They report that the effects of being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birds singing and feeling in contact with nature were greater for those with higher levels of trait impulsivity.
The research team, which included scientists from King’s College London as well as landscape architects and an art foundation, noted that there were some limitations to this particular study.
For example, it is possible that people who made the decision to go outside and look at nature were already in a better state of mind than those who were feeling down and lazy, and were therefore more likely to stay at home or at work.
In addition, people with lower mental well-being may have been more likely to pay attention to the unpleasant sounds of traffic rather than hearing the singing of birds.
Also, the participants skewed younger and better educated than the overall population.
“Future studies would benefit from recruiting a more diverse sample and investigating how the results change as a function of demographic and socioeconomic factors,” the authors wrote.
Still, the work represents the first time that a study has looked at how including natural features within a built environment can affect mental well-being, the authors wrote. Work like this could help city planners better understand what natural features have the greatest effects on the well-being of city dwellers, they said.
Currently, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas, and previous studies have shown that people who live in cities are at a higher risk for mental health issues, the authors said.
That means that studies that can help cities improve the mental well-being of their residents have never been more important.