Nature cure

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It’s Bioregional’s Health and Happiness month. So with spring well underway let’s explore how nature is good for our wellbeing.

Civilisations and economies are totally dependent on using the resources nature provides. And with the great majority of UK citizens living urbanised, indoor lives, being exposed to nature is good for our physical and mental health.

I’ve been researching and writing recently about how our gardens, in particular, are good for both wildlife and us. A report will be published soon, but since this week is National Gardening Week it’s a good time to share some background.  

I’ve looked at dozens of scientific papers about nature being good for people living in urban settings, yet surprisingly few of these are about domestic gardens – which bring us our own little slice of nature right next to our homes.

Researchers may be missing a trick here because the fundamental reason, I think, why we have gardens as well as parks in our towns and cities is that we know deep down that nature is good for us.

My belief in nature’s power to do us good has been strengthened by reading this research. Yet I’m not alone in being baffled about how it works. What is it about nature that is actually good for us? What are the mechanisms? What is nature’s essence?

And if nature is good for humans, how come we are so superb at trashing it in return? Nature is still on the run even in rich, advanced nations like the UK, as was recently revealed by the excellent State of Nature 2016 report.

One idea running through much of this research is that nature is like a sort of medicine with which we can dose people to help keep them mentally and physically healthy.

Yet the quality of the evidence that nature is good for us generally falls far short of the standards required in testing a new drug or treatment. When it comes to doses of nature, there have been no double blind randomised control trials, in which neither the patients or the experimenters know who is getting the drug and who is getting the placebo. It’s impossible to devise such an experiment.

A lot of the research is based on people answering questionnaires about their mental and physical health or about their attitudes and exposure to nature. Amid the dozens of studies which claim that exposure to nature is good for health and wellbeing, you come across the occasional big review paper which is rather sniffy about it all. Such reviews say the evidence is inconclusive, the studies are of inadequate quality and better work is needed to establish any link.

One big problem is establishing the direction of cause. You can show a link between people experiencing good mental and physical health and their degree of exposure to nature. But maybe that’s because healthy, well-adjusted people are better able to get out into nature, or more likely to have homes in greener, leafier urban areas, rather than the other way around.

Even so, for me nature’s benefits remain a no-brainer. I’ve always felt it has been good to me and the sheer number and variety of scientific studies establishing a link reinforces that.

There is also the great wealth of evidence from economic studies showing that people like and value nature. They spend time and money being exposed to it, from feeding garden birds to going whale watching. By and large people like things that are good for them – our biological evolution has arranged things that way.

In modern, industrialised societies these drives don’t always work out well – our powerful attraction to food does us no good when it is all too easily available. But the breadth and depth of economic evidence for people valuing nature speaks to me of people needing doses of greenery and wild things to help them stay well.

We need more research and more clever scientists working on the hows and whys of nature being good for us. We have only scratched the surface so far. And it might only do good if they included more sceptics. My impression is that the great majority of scientists studying the subject are as prejudiced as I am in thinking that nature is good for us.

It would also be useful to study those of us who don’t appear to be attracted to nature, be they indifferent or actual dislikers. Does it derive from their experience, or lack of experience, about nature? I think they may have much to teach us.

As our knowledge and understanding of this nature-human link advances, just think of the win wins we can grasp. Instead of steadily destroying nature, we start increasing our exposure to it in order to make us happier and healthier. And in so doing we save the planet. That really ought to be a no-brainer.

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