Mental Health and the Human-Nature Connection

Humankind’s connection to the natural environment spans from pre-history to the present to the future. Much research on this connection has focused on how human behavior and development affects the state of the environment, but the growing field of environmental psychology has begun to unearth the inverse. Recent findings are illuminating the significant role that climate and environment play on both physical and psychological well-being.

Environmental psychology focuses on the interaction between individuals and their surroundings; incorporating natural environments, social settings, workplaces, and living spaces. With the hot-button topics of climate change and green movements, the field has witnessed an array of intriguing studies being conducted to examine the importance of the natural world to human well-being, and the growth of the environmental mindset.

A Changing State of Mind

Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of the current generation’s psychological health is the dramatic increase of stress-related disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). ADHD and similar disorders are relatively new within the medical field, meaning that an ADHD diagnosis simply did not exist until the late 1960s.

A couple of key questions loom: are stress related disorders becoming more prevalent, or are they are just being more readily recognized by psychologists? As psychological research increasingly takes aim at the continuing trend of urbanization and role of technology in daily life, the results are becoming clear: urbanization and technology are playing a significant role in the rise of mental health issues.

Spending time in natural environments can bring noticeable mood changes almost instantaneously for many people. Thinking back to an experience of hiking in the mountains, taking a dip at the beach, or even a short stroll through a neighborhood park, and most would likely connect that experience with a positive change in mental state. Psychologists like Dr. Stephen Kaplan, have studied these experiences and tied them to scientific logic.

The Science Behind It

Dr. Kaplan’s study in 1995, “The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework,” highlights the role of nature in mental restoration through the perspective of the Attention Restoration Theory. The theory itself, dating back to 1892, has been built upon over decades of research, and Dr. Kaplan’s findings follow suit. By first identifying fatigue as the key difference between negative and positive experiences of stress, Dr. Kaplan points out that natural environments play a crucial role in moderating and recovering from stress. Through this conclusion, it can be understood that the mind requires rest, much in the same way the body does, in order to perform at its best. It is here that the human connection to the natural world comes into play as a necessity.

More recently, Dr. David Pearson and Tony Craig, of the University of Aberdeen and The James Hutton Institute, respectively, have elaborated on the association between natural environments and mental restoration. In their 2014 meta-analysis, Pearson and Craig observed that the contemporary trend of urbanization has serious implications for human health. brain-parkAlthough the dichotomy between natural and built environments is decidedly simplistic among existing research, there is widespread support for the restorative properties of immersion in natural, green-spaces.

Essentially what this means is that the natural world offers a second-to-none opportunity for rest and rehabilitation of the human mind. If the connection to these natural environments deteriorates, as is the case with ongoing urbanization and technological dependency, mental health and cognitive function will suffer. Combining past studies of the restorative environments and the ongoing push for continued empirical research within the environmental psychology field, environmentalism becomes much more than a bullet point on a political agenda.

It is an innate human tendency to categorize surroundings, other people, and ideas so as to better make sense of them. In the contemporary political climate, environmentalism is often pinned with its own liberal stereotype, which in turn can cause people to be attracted to or repelled from taking environmentally inclined action. This sort of situation, where people blend political and moral values with their own self-concept—how one evaluates and perceives the self—in order to make decisions, is delved into by social psychologists; it forms an enlightening partnership within the field of environmental psychology.

Who is Going Green?

Dr. Cameron Brick researches social and environmental/conservation psychology and received his PhD from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Brick elaborates on the individual processes that go into making a decision, specifically within the context of environmentalism, which for the purposes of this article, refers to a valuation of the natural world and its preservation.

Dr. Cameron Brick

Dr. Cameron Brick

First and foremost, it is well known that humans are creatures of habit – to implement lifestyle changes is hard. However, “what’s often missed here is that environmentalism doesn’t mean ‘less,’”” says Dr. Brick. This is to say that while “going green” is often associated with an immediate sacrifice of comfort or luxury, it offers long-term fulfillment and improves overall well-being.

Beyond individual, internal thought processes, Brick points out that the actions of those surrounding us play an important role in whether or not one chooses to take environmental action. For example, “if our friends and family often fly overseas for vacation, that behavior becomes normal and morally sanctioned,” Brick explains. This aspect of environmental psychology relates to the political categorization of environmentalism since one’s social identity within his or her group memberships may drive them to detach or attach themselves from the environmentalist label. As Brick explains that such an effect is arising as a hot topic in the field, especially in exploring how taking one environmental action may lead to another. Moreover, once one establishes an environmental ethic as a valued quality of his or her identity, one green choice tends to snowball into another in order to maintain a consistent self-image.

The Need for Nature

Amidst ongoing research, what remains consistent across findings in environmental psychology is that the benefits of maintaining a relationship with the natural environment are drastically underestimated. Brick goes on to elaborate, “When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, what do we reach for? It seems we reach for food, TV shows, and our phones. However, walking in nature can be more effective to actually improving our mood and functioning.”

“When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, what do we reach for? It seems we reach for food, TV shows, and our phones. However, walking in nature can be more effective to actually improving our mood and functioning.”

As the world races towards convenience and efficiency above all, maintaining a relationship with the natural world is being shown to be critical to cognitive function and healthier lifestyles. Continuing developments in research from environmental and social psychologists are utilizing empirical reasoning to show that environmentalism is not some ephemeral fad, but rather a fundamental human practice strongly linked to well-being.

With the importance of maintaining a connection to the natural world becoming more evident through psychological research, the importance of preserving a natural world to connect with is emphasized as well. The role of human action on the state of the environment is accentuated, yet for one to live a healthy life the natural world has an equally crucial role.



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