Well-being: Why nature (really) does us good and how science explains it

Discover, every day, an analysis of our partner The Conversation. Today, a researcher explains how nature can influence our well-being and health.

ECOTHERAPY – Discover, every day, an analysis of our partner The Conversation. Today, a researcher explains how nature can influence our well-being and health.

In 2015, a survey conducted as part of the Fête de la nature revealed that 96% of French respondents perceived nature as a “place of well-being and rejuvenation”.

Today, the avalanche of books on this subject – driven by the bestseller The Secret Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2017) –, sclerotherapy (resourcing in the forest) which brings together more and more followers or the multiplication of “nature and well-being” fairs are all signs that we feel a need for the green in our increasingly urbanized lives.

While the hypothesis of a link between human well-being and nature has long been accepted, research in fields as varied as medicine, psychology, or cognitive science actually validates this theory. We must also take into account the social and environmental upheavals of recent decades that impact nature and our relationship with it.

Recently, researchers have drawn up an overview of the different lines of research explored and the results around the theme of human well-being and nature. The notion of well-being, as understood here, does not refer only to health, as the absence of disease, but more generally refers to a physical, mental, and social state of well-being.

Nature as a remedy

Being in contact with nature promotes our physical and psychological well-being.

Several studies observed a reduction in stress and depression, favored by the natural environment and, conversely, an improvement in self-esteem, the feeling of happiness, or creativity.

Nature cures our ailments and, more than that, it also improves our cognitive abilities and functions, reducing fatigue and restoring our attention span, so solicited by everyday life. It also contributes to our physical well-being: reduction of pain, blood pressure, obesity, or acceleration of healing and prevention of certain diseases.

In short, nature is not simply a necessary substrate in which human cultures take root, but a breeding ground that influences our daily lives, and that, perhaps, is precisely what allows these cultures to grow and develop.

What kind are we talking about?

The nature in question can take very different forms: it can be elements of nature (stones, water, wind), fauna, flora, landscapes (sea, mountain, forest), which do not necessarily belong to a biodiversity that acts in a defined ecosystem.

For example, in 1984, a study already showed that patients with a window to the outside healed faster following operations than other patients without such a view.

© Provided by 20 Minutes A views of nature would help heal faster © Jacob Meyer / Unsplash

Is it enough for a few green plants or a photograph of the sea to feel the benefits of nature? The issue is important because it potentially has consequences in terms of choice of environmental protection and public health policy.

Nature rich in biodiversity

Studies converge on the idea that healthy nature, that is to say, rich in biodiversity and functional, ensures good human health.

This observation may seem obvious, however, the more systematic convergence of debates between environmental and social issues is quite recent. The media coverage of the discussions around the renewal of the European license of glyphosate, a herbicide massively used in agriculture, or more broadly the explosion in demand for organic products, reflect the growing sensitivity of public opinion to these issues. When it comes to director diet-based exposure, the relationship between degraded natural systems and negative effects on human health is easy to envision.

The added value on health and well-being, brought by a rich environment compared to scattered elements of nature, has yet to be explored.

One area in which the benefits of exposure to biodiversity-rich environments are clearly illustrated is that of chronic allergies and inflammatory diseases. Exposure to a multiplicity of natural habitats normally allows the development of immune responses to allergens and other factors that can cause disease. The absence of exposure to microbes, especially in early childhood, can lead to poor acclimatization of the body’s microbial community, and an unexpected reaction to certain particles.

© Provided by 20 MinutesContemplate a wild landscape soothes © Anneliese Phillips / Unsplash

The environment of individuals must therefore include a diversified source of microbes allowing adequate inoculation.

According to the-called biodiversity hypothesis, the decrease in human exposure to the microbial population would affect the microbiota, which would lead to the development of different diseases.

A dose of nature

The current challenge is that a healthy nature is not just an environment devoid of chemicals. The destruction of natural habitats and species, the overexploitation of resources or climate change are also human-caused factors that contribute to making nature less diverse and alter its functioning; and in turn, jeopardize our health and well-being.

In what relations with nature do we have to be engaged in order to receive the benefits? Should we look at it or touch it? And with what regularity?

Here again, the questions are important because they are part of a contemporary context of changing relationships with nature, due to urban and sedentary lifestyles. We are moving less and less time outdoors and, for most of us, into an impoverished natural environment, to the point that some authors speak of it as the “extinction of experience.”

The parameters that influence human well-being are sometimes difficult to isolate from the subjects’ lived experiences. This is why some authors propose as a research framework the concept of “dose” of nature, making it possible to associate different durations, frequencies, and intensities of experiences and exposure to nature. The different parameters that make up this “dose” are then processed according to the health of the individuals. The importance of the benefits derived from the relationship with nature would thus depend on the dose of nature received.

See life in green

Nevertheless, the complexity of the mechanisms of natural benefits to human well-being is still beyond comprehension. Why does nature do us good? To this question, the hypothesis of “biophilia” is advanced, postulating that the human being possesses an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. This interest in nature would be the product of a biological evolution allowing the best possible adaptation to the environment.

The rapid decline in natural habitats and the collapse of the diversity of animal and plant species point to a worrying human well-being scenario. In addition, contemporary lifestyles result in lower direct exposure to the natural environment for a large number of individuals.

If our well-being depends in part on the quality of our connection to nature, we can wonder about the human and environmental consequences of this “disconnection” that is beginning. To reverse this trend, the development of scientific research must be accompanied by the implementation of field actions.

It is necessary to rethink the approach of management policies, especially in the field of urban planning, where it seems urgent to bring nature to the city, to protect and promote biodiversity in these spaces.

At the same time, the field of education also bears a responsibility to take measures to encourage young people to develop and maintain relationships with nature as early and as regularly as possible.

While the preservation of biodiversity struggles to fit into the agenda, the recognition of human health and well-being as an element strictly dependent on favorable environmental conditions could be a decisive argument.

This analysis was written by Alix Cosquer, a researcher in environmental psychology and conservation psychology at the University of Western Brittany.

The original article was published on the website of the Conversation.

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