Blog #43 – The benefits of nature – Part 2
In our last post of 2017, we considered aspects of the relationship between the environment in which we live and overall well-being. We highlighted the troubling links between urban life and mental problems, but, of more interest for a series focusing on the cultivation of increased levels of well-being, as opposed to obsessing over what contributes to its lessening or absence, is the consistent message in relevant research that humans can benefit massively from nature.
We looked at research findings showing how it is not merely the case that being in nature is good for us, but even looking at photographs of nature can yield measurable benefits. Quite why we seem to be so primed to benefit from exposure to nature is an open question. There are many potential answers, not all of which lend themselves to being tested in the field of rigorous scientific research, but that is less important than being aware of the potential benefits. A possible explanation that feels intuitively correct may be that humans were simply designed to live in more rural, natural settings, with the noise, crowds, and pressure that can sometimes characterise ‘concrete jungle’ living too far removed from our physiological and psychological ‘default settings’.
However, again, the why of it is perhaps less important than the fact of it, and with that in mind, there is a wide research base in this area, dating both from the past and from more recent times.
Diana Bowler, Lisette Buyung-Ali, Teri Knight, and Andrew Pullin published a review article in BMC Public Health in 2010, looking at evidence for the health benefits arising from exposure to natural environments. This article drew on data from 25 individual studies, most of which examined the effects of being in a natural or synthetic (man-made) environment during a walk or run. Typically, these settings included public parks and green university campuses versus indoor and outdoor built environments, with results usually assessed based on measurement of self-reported participant emotions.
You most likely will not be surprised to read that the trend reported throughout those studies was that participants exposed to the natural environments tended to fare better, with beneficial changes reported across a number of fronts, including feelings on energy, anxiety, anger, fatigue, and sadness, while positive outcomes were also reported under more broad headings such as mood and attention.
Perhaps one of the key developments in this area in recent years has been the growing awareness among the general public of the potential psychological benefits of ‘getting back to nature’. This awareness has contributed to a surge of interest in outdoors-related activities, with subsequent positive word-of-mouth then serving to fuel further interest, and so the momentum builds. Perhaps this can also be linked with technology, in that in the internet age and the era of social media, it has never been easier for people to spread the word about whatever it is they are passionate about, and in turn for people who are curious about certain activities to seek out relevant information.
An example of a sphere of activity that has seen massive growth in recent years is that of walking pilgrimages. Perhaps the best known of these is the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim path in northern Spain that concludes in the city of Santiago de Compostela, where, so the story goes, the remains of St. James are buried.
This pilgrim route has existed for hundreds of years, but until relatively recently was more or less the preserve of those who undertook the trek for religious reasons. However, over the last 30 or so years, the appeal has broadened far beyond what had become a somewhat narrow niche.
For those who are unaware, the length of this trek can vary from person to person, and there are many different official routes to Santiago. For example, the most popular route is known as the Camino Frances. It starts on the French side of the Pyrenees, and is approximately 800 kilometres in length. Some pilgrims will walk the full route in one visit – typically taking five to six weeks to do so – while others might undertake it in blocks over several years, while yet more will choose to begin closer to Santiago, with the most popular option being a start point approximately 100 kilometres from the final destination.
The key point for the purposes of this conversation is the growing popularity of this walk and others like it. An examination of the official Camino pilgrim statistics underscores this point. In 1986, just under 2,500 people registered with the pilgrim office in Santiago upon arrival. By 2001, the corresponding figure was 61,418. By 2006, numbers edged above 100,000, and by 2016, this figure was edging towards 300,000. This astonishing growth hints at some underlying pattern. Again, the temptation is to seek one answer that explains it all, but that may not be possible. Little formal research has been undertaken to examine motivations for undertaking the trek and what benefits people feel afterwards, but there are numerous anecdotal sources out there and internet forum sites dedicated to such conversations.
These sources point to a range of benefits and attractions, from exercise to social interaction to taking on a personal challenge. However, one of the most commonly cited benefits relates to mental well-being. So many pilgrims talk about the peace that comes from prolonged periods in the countryside and how it serves to quieten the mind, encourage a sense of being present in the moment, and to even extend time perception. The logic of this latter point being that, in the so-called ‘real world’, our busy urban lives can become quite repetitive and we can spend so much time thinking about the past and the future that we drift onto auto-pilot in the present and thus the days slip away. It seems exposure to these natural environments can have the opposite effect, grounding us in the here and now, and nurturing more peaceful feelings within.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.