Most of us enjoy spending time in natural environments – they make us feel good.
For some, time spent outdoors in natural settings provides valuable quality time with friends and family, away from the lure of computers and smart phones. Others may be drawn to the opportunities for physical recreation, perhaps something energetic like climbing, hiking or surfing, or something less vigorous, a ramble through the countryside or simply just gazing out to sea.
It probably just depends how the mood takes us. We follow our moods and inclinations, and often seek out natural environments when we feel stressed, tired or anxious – they seem to help clear our minds and give us precious ‘thinking space’.
The pull towards these ‘restorative’ environments, particularly in troubled times, seems quite intuitive, yet these apparently subconscious responses are supported by a substantial body of research suggesting that we tend to prefer natural settings to more urban ones because of the many physiological and psychological benefits they bring.
Much of this scientific evidence is based on research conducted in ‘green spaces’, ranging from challenging wildness experiences to simply pottering around one’s garden. It’s been suggested that the flora and fauna experienced in our surroundings can influence how we feel and that we tend to prefer parks with greater levels of different plants and animals, to those containing less diversity.
Nowadays, scientists are increasingly exploring the health and well-being benefits of ‘blue space’. This is unsurprising considering the high value we place on views of water, whether a lake, river or the coast. We are willing to pay substantially more for a hotel room with a sea view or a home by the coast. And while prices may be greater, so might be the health benefits.
One study found that those of us fortunate to live close to the coast rated our health better than those living further inland. Researchers suggest that this may relate to the greater opportunities for physical activity, for relaxation and for stress recovery – the biodiversity in aquatic settings can influence how we feel.
Researchers also found that photos and videos of coastal scenes containing greater levels of biodiversity are more likely to provide restoration than those with lower levels. Animal behaviours also appeared to play a part, with highly fascinating behaviours (e.g. seals ‘playing’) being preferred to less fascinating behaviours (e.g. seals sleeping).
However, it’s not always necessary to experience the ‘real’ environment – a beautiful landscape painting or even a house plant have been found to provide similar benefits to experiences in real natural settings. While spending time in nature is valuable for many reasons, not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to access natural environments, whether through lack of nature close by or mobility issues. In this instance, it’s possible that nature in more urban settings can contribute to greater well-being.
For some people, public aquariums can be a relaxing experience and, again, people’s psychological and physiological responses can be affected by exhibit diversity. There’s much further work to be done in this area, and the potential implications and applications are many. From a health and well-being perspective, public aquariums can provide valuable opportunities for easy and regular access to a restorative natural environment.
Work on the effect of biodiversity on human health and well-being also has conservation implications. We are experiencing devastating biodiversity losses, yet our increasingly urbanised lives have resulted in many people feeling disconnected from nature and unable to associate their actions with impacts on the natural world. This is compounded with every new generation as a degraded habitat and reduction in species becomes the norm. Some conservationists believe that increasing opportunities to engage with nature may improve conservation efforts and help counter biodiversity loss.
Incorporating nature experiences into day-to-day life might help people connect with and value the nature around them and encourage more sustainable behaviours. So blow those cobwebs away at the coast, take your lunch to the park or visit your local aquarium: experience nature and reap the benefits any way you can, as often as you can. Value and appreciate nature, and look after nature so it can continue to look after you.
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