A Regular Dose of Nature May Improve Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted on November 20, 2020

Since the first case of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID‐19) was diagnosed in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, it has spread throughout the world with alarming speed. This has led to extensive and widespread efforts to contain its spread. Along with the widespread use of masks, many governments globally have encouraged or mandated the practice of isolation and physical distancing (so‐called “social distancing”; Lewnard and Lo 2020). The outcome of this is an unprecedented and rapid change in most people’s day‐to‐day lives with many people currently spending the majority of their time at home in isolation from others. While these measures are proven to be effective in reducing the spread of the disease, they are inevitably likely to have huge negative consequences for personal mental health and well‐being in both the short and long terms (Galea et al. 2020). Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the adoption of physical distancing, as well as fears of contracting the COVID‐19 virus, are likely resulting in mental disorders, such as depression and increased sense of loneliness (Killgore et al. 2020, Li and Wang 2020, Rajkumar 2020).

While not ideal, it is possible for people to receive mental health benefits from nature from within their homes without having to physically visit natural environments (Russell et al. 2013, Cox et al. 2017b). One notable “less immediate” experience of nature (sensu Soga and Gaston 2020) is viewing nature through windows from the home. To a greater or lesser extent, and either consciously or unconsciously, most people can have this type of experience every day (Cox et al. 2017a, Soga and Gaston 2020). Recent studies showed that nature views through windows are associated with a wide range of improved mental health outcomes, such as increased life satisfaction and well‐being, attention restoration, and stress recovery (e.g., Dravigne et al. 2008, Gilchrist et al. 2015, Li and Sullivan 2016, Chang et al. 2020). Knowing how “more immediate” (physically present in a natural environment) and “less immediate” (viewing nature through a window) nature experiences are associated with improved mental health outcomes might allow us to design urban areas and nature‐based interventions and programs for “happier” urban populations.

We surveyed 3,000 residents of Tokyo, central Japan, the world’s largest megacity, to determine the association between five mental health outcomes (depression, life satisfaction, subjective happiness, self‐esteem, and loneliness) and two measures of nature experiences (visiting urban greenspaces and green view through windows from home). People’s mental health statuses are commonly affected by various sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, such as age, sex, and annual household income (Shanahan et al. 2016, Cox et al. 2017b). Thus, we adjusted for socioeconomic and lifestyle variables in our analyses to facilitate the detection of the effects of nature experiences distinct from other potential confounding factors.

We found consistent positive associations between frequency of greenspace use and the five measures of mental health outcomes. There are several possible pathways through which greenspace use promotes mental health outcomes. The first, and most direct one, is the added health benefits of direct interactions with nature (Keniger et al. 2013, Hartig et al. 2014, Bratman et al. 2019). Visiting urban green space delivers multi‐sensory experiences for a person, such as the sight and sound of birds and the scent of flowers (Soga and Gaston 2020), which can improve their mental health status through various human senses (Franco et al. 2017). Second, greenspace use is likely to encourage people to undertake physical exercise (so‐called “green exercise”), which in turn contributes to improving mental health (Pretty et al. 2005). Third, urban greenspace provides opportunities to interact with other members of local communities (e.g., friends), which is likely to ameliorate loneliness and improve well‐being (Maas et al. 2009). While this third pathway might have less of an influence than ordinarily due to social distancing practices implement during the pandemic, we do believe that interactions such as simply seeing other people or signaling to others from an acceptable distance, will help lessen adverse mental impacts from social distancing. Of course, these three major pathways are likely to not act independently of each other but are likely to work synergistically.

People with homes with a view of nature (greenspace or trees) reported better mental status for all of the mental health measures we considered. Although the causal relationships are not easily untangled, at face value this implies that viewing nature through a window can promote a person’s improved mental health outcomes. This interpretation is consistent with many studies that demonstrate a positive association between nature views from windows and improved mental health and well‐being (e.g., Dravigne et al. 2008, Gilchrist et al. 2015, Li and Sullivan 2016, Chang et al. 2020). Of course, nature close to the home likely affects a person’s mental health through pathways other than just sight (the view from the window). For example, roadside trees enhance the abundance and diversity of birds around home, which is likely to increase people’s frequency of listening to bird songs (Cox et al. 2017b). This in turn might improve people’s mental health as listening to bird songs are known to be associated with improved mental health, such as attention restoration and stress recovery (e.g., Ratcliffe et al. 2013, Benfield et al. 2014). An interesting direction for future research is therefore to determine the underlying mechanisms for the relationship between nature close to the home and improved mental health.

Surprisingly, the effect of a green view on people’s mental health was generally greater than that of the use of greenspace. This is an important result as it suggests that less immediate experiences with nature can have comparable benefits to human health and well‐being compared to more immediate ones. One likely reason for our result could be that we conducted the surveys during the COVID‐19 pandemic, a time when people were advised to stay at home in isolation, and thus less immediate nature experiences might greatly outnumber the more immediate ones. Our result might also be associated with the timing of our surveys: we asked participants to report their behavioral patterns for May, which is one of the most comfortable seasons in Japan. At this time, many people might have opened windows within their homes and experienced the nearby nature more directly. Given that most of the literature on the relationship between nature experiences and mental health is concerned with more immediate experiences of nature, our results are enlightening and suggest that more attention should be paid to less immediate experiences with nature.

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Category(s):Mental Health in Asia

Source material from Ecological Applications