"Green therapy," also known as ecotherapy, is gaining the attention of researchers, nature enthusiasts, and people in search of alleviating symptoms of depression. Being in nature is has long been associated with being mindful and meditative, but only recently has the scientific community researched the mental health benefits of outdoor immersion.

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Essex and published by the mental health organization Mind found that taking a walk in nature reduced depression scores in 71 percent of participants. Researchers compared the effect with a control group who also took walk, but in a shopping centre. Only 45 percent of the shopping center walkers had reduced depression scores, while 22 percent of them actually felt more depressed.

“Our research shows people commissioning mental health services and social care that a holistic treatment like ecotherapy delivers not only health benefits, but wider social benefits and cost savings that medication could not,” Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said. Mind has funded several “Ecominds” projects that bring people at risk of developing mental health problems to become involved in green activities like gardening or environmental conservation work. The organization has found that 69 percent of people had an increased sense of well-being after participating.

Nature Deficit Disorder

Other studies have shown that reconnecting with green can help lift depression, improve energy, and boost overall well-being and mental health. As American author Richard Louv says in his book The Nature Principle, people living in high-tech societies often suffer from what he calls "nature deficit disorder."

A 2006 study investigated the benefits of contact with nature and found that it could help prevent mental health disorders. Researchers suggest that contact with nature could be applied in early intervention as well as treatment, along with physical activity and social connectivity. “The case example illustrates how ‘active,’ ‘social’ and ‘adventurous’ contact with nature may be combined with a treatment intervention to protect and enhance the health of individuals experiencing chronic mental, emotional and physical health difficulties,” the study authors write.

Another study published in 2010 in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that spending even just 20 minutes outside per day could boost energy levels. “Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses,” Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and an author of the 2010 study, said.

But what about the differences in the mental health of people who live in a rural area versus the mental health of urban-dwellers? Interestingly, even though taking walks in nature can help prevent depression, research has shown that the prevalence of depression is significantly higher in people who live in rural areas compared to urban areas in the U.S. This difference may be due to differing population characteristics. A similar study conducted in Canada in 2011 found the opposite: Rural people had a lower risk of depression and anxiety due to a “stronger sense of community belonging.” Likewise, another paper published in Urban Geography proposed a urban-rural happiness gradient, which showed that though “there are many benefits of big-city living,” but “high levels of happiness are not among them.”

There certainly is still no clear answer as to where happiness lies but perhaps it’s all about finding a balance between nature walks, social community, and just enough green to boost your well-being.