Research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology shows that people’s mental energy bounced back even when they just looked at pictures of nature. (Pictures of city scenes had no such effect.)
Tensed and stressed? Head for the trees. One study found that students sent into the forest for two nights had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone often used as a marker for stress — than those who spent that time in the city. Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research, 2007. In another study, researchers worked to deplete participants’ ability to focus. Then some took a walk in nature, some took a walk through the city, and the rest just relaxed. When they returned, the nature group scored the best on a proofreading task. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1995
Research by Stanford University shows that walking stimulates creative thinking, which is perhaps why the Ancient Greeks, Leonardo daVinci, Steve Jobs and no doubt thousands of others have sought inspiration on the move. Furthermore, there’s evidence that experiencing moments of awe – perhaps watching a sunrise or looking up at an ancient tree – can stimulate curiosity and boost wellbeing.
This Harvard Business Review Article shows benefits to health and self-esteem, reductions in stress, increases in creativity.
Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood,” found an analysis of 10 earlier studies about so-called “green exercise,” and “the mentally ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements.” The presence of water made the positive effects even stronger.Sources: Environmental Science and Technology, 2010; Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012; Journal of Affective Disorders, 2013
Researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space.
A 15-minute walk in the woods causes measurable changes in physiology. Japanese researchers led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki at Chiba University sent 84 subjects to stroll in seven different forests, while the same number of volunteers walked around city centers. The forest walkers hit a relaxation jackpot: showing a 16% decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a 2 percent drop in blood pressure, and a 4 percent drop in heart rate. Miyazaki believes our bodies relax in pleasant, natural surroundings because they evolved there. Our senses are adapted to interpret in- formation about plants and streams, he says, not traffic and high-rises.
Stanford researcher Greg Bratman and his colleagues scanned the brains of 38 volunteers before and after they walked for 90 minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain tied to depressive rumination—and from their own reports, the nature walkers beat themselves up less. Bratman believes that being outside in a pleasant environment (not the kind where you’re getting eaten alive by gnats or pummeled by hail) takes us outside of ourselves in a good way. Nature, he says, may influence “how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.”