Is it possible to improve your mood, decrease symptoms of mental problems such as anxiety and depression and improve your thinking all by simply going outside? Most people living in a modern world spend the greatest portion of their day inside in artificial environments—exposed primarily to artificial lighting, a controlled climate and indoor noise pollution.  At the same time, many people recognize that getting outside and connecting with nature makes them “feel better.” 

According to Roger Walsh in the October 2011 issue of The American Psychologist, getting back to nature is underused as a strategy treat psychiatric disorders and improve well-being.  In a review of the literature, Walsh found that natural settings can enhance both physical and mental health..

I summarize, below, some of Walsh’s findings in his review of the literature exploring how nature impacts mental health. 

The Costs of Disconnecting From Nature

A growing field of environmental psychology has begun to establish the extensive psychological costs of spending time in artificial environments.  A review of the literature exploring the impact of learning environments on achievement, engagement, emotional state attendance and well-being found strong consistent evidence of the negative impact of environmental factors such as air quality and noise pollution on learning (Higgins, Hall, Wall, Woolner & McCoughey, 2005).

In his review, Walsh found  artificial environments can lead to mood, sleep and diurnal rhythm disruptions as well as short-term impairment of attention and thought and long-term reduced academic performance.  He found special populations, such as those with Alzhiemer’s disease had additional psychological problems

Some aspects of our artificial environments have received a significant amount of study.  Noise pollution, for example, can cause cognitive problems, sleep disturbances, emotional difficulties, difficulty concentrating and impaired language acquisition in children.

The Impact of Media Immersion

Digital technology is changing how we communicate, socialize and work.  Researchers are also finding that it is changing our brains (Small and Vorgen, 2008).  The average American spends several hours a day watching television as well as additional time with other digital media.

Exposure to digital media can have both positive and negative effects.  Aggressive TV content can foster aggressive behavior, while pro-social content can foster positive behavior such as altruism, and improved social skills.

However, excessive media immersion can lead to problems with attention and thought and can even become an addictive behavior.  Too much digital media can leave you unable to focus, feeling as if you are in a fog, frantically and ineffectually multitasking and compulsively consuming more media.

The Benefits of Nature

Studies on the specific therapeutic benefits of nature are limited.  Often the benefits of nature are difficult to disentangle from other lifestyle issues.  However, positive effects of exposure to nature seem to include:

  • Improved Attention and Memory
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Sense of Peacefulness
  • Enhanced sense of Emotional well-being
  • Enhanced sense of Spiritual well-being
  • Appears to reduce symptoms of stress, depression and ADHD.

The impact of our increasing exposure to artificial environments on ourmental health clearly needs further study.  However, it appears that actively seeking out nature can improve your thinking and overall sense of well-being.