Those who follow me on Instagram will know I like to post the occasional picture of clouds and sky. I’d post more if I thought I could get away with it. New research published this week has confirmed what many of us have known all along: that contact with nature – and specifically the sky, trees and birdsong – is good for your mental health and wellbeing.
This research was conducted by King’s College London and used a specially developed smartphone app called Urban Mind. It examined how the mental wellbeing of those who live in cities is affected by exposure to different elements of the natural world.
Results showed that people’s moods improved just by being outdoors (this is obvious really – I know given a choice between a desk and the park where I’d rather be). But the news here is that effects did not dissipate once people had returned to their desks. And after exposure to trees, sky and birdsong in particular, the benefits were more long-lasting – sometimes for up to several hours.
City dwellers are at higher risk of developing mental illness. Living and working in a city and having to constantly attend to traffic, technology and other stimuli on a daily basis can cause a sensory overload. This can result in a neurological state that researchers call “directed attention fatigue”, which occurs when our voluntary attention – the part of the brain that we use to concentrate on particular stimuli while ignoring distractions – gets worn down.
The symptoms of directed attention fatigue include feelings of heightened distraction, impatience and forgetfulness. More severe forms can also lead to poor judgement and increased levels of stress.
For office workers, getting outside at lunchtime and simply sitting in the park looking at trees (or the sky!) gives the brain a break from all this urban stimuli. We all know that some fresh air can clear your head and give you a sense of well-being. Just fifteen minutes of natural sunlight a day can help you synthesise Vitamin D (which in turn helps you sleep at night), lower your cortisol levels and is known to reduce depression and anxiety.
Even a desk by the window for some natural light is beneficial, and a recent report found that office workers with just views of trees had lower stress levels than those who looked across a city.
Daily Dose for Wellbeing
Getting your daily dose of nature doesn’t have to be difficult. You can:
- Take 15 minutes at lunchtime to visit the local park
- Walk or cycle to work
- Take the scenic commute
- Sit outside on a patio or balcony during a screen break
Try to be mindful while you are doing any of these as focussing will help you connect to your environment. Try to leave your phone behind, or at the very least put it out of sight on the “do not disturb” mode.
I conducted my own experiment today. Wannabe Junior had forgotten his PE kit so I walked it to school at lunchtime down the quieter back streets of our neighbourhood. There were a few moments when there was no traffic and so I listened. All I heard was the sound of my footsteps and the most beautiful birdsong. In the normal scheme of things I doubt I would have noticed either. Were I a twitcher I’d have been able to identify the species but alas I am not, so all I can report is that it was beautiful. And that I felt great. I also managed to take the photo for this post en route. Look at that beautiful lichen! How could seeing that not improve your mood?
Apologies for another research-based blog, it’s back to the yoga mat next week, I promise. But if you’ll excuse me right now I’m off to walk the dog. And I’ll take a look at the trees and the sky while I’m at it.
You know, the sky is everywhere. All you have to do is look up.
Are you a city dweller? Do you make the effort to go outside and see nature on a daily basis? What are your strategies against “directed attention fatigue”?