Clinically Significant Improvements in Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature

In an increasingly urbanised world where mental health disorders have affected 30% of the global population, simple nature based solutions are often overlooked. Our recent paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows how increasing connection to urban nature can bring clinically significant improvements in quality of life for those with living with a mental health difficulty – and bring significant benefits to all adults. All through simply noticing the good things in nature – an approach I first developed at the University of Derby a few years ago.

The recently published research evaluated a smartphone based version. This allowed it to prompt users to notice the good things in urban nature each day for 7 days. In a randomised controlled trial, the app prompted 582 adults, including adults with a common mental health problem (n= 148), to notice the good things about urban nature (intervention condition) or built spaces (active control). There were statistically significant and sustained improvements in wellbeing at one-month follow-up. This improvement in wellbeing was partly explained by significant increases in nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect. This study provides the first controlled experimental evidence that noticing the good things about urban nature has strong clinical potential as a wellbeing intervention and social prescription.

The research was part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby led the work package that developed the smartphone intervention. To help engagement users interacted with the app through a ‘conversation’ with a ‘chatbot’ – the users companion for the week. The design operationalises some of the Behavioural Insights Team ‘Behavior Change For Nature: Behavioral Science Toolkit‘  strategies. It motivates through positive emotions, it socialises through reciprocity (social media sharing), it makes things easy through humanised message, simple messages and timely prompts.

The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces using about 1000 ‘geofences’ in the city, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when near green spaces as most people spend the vast majority of their day indoors. The app also recorded what the user was doing, who they were with and the amount of biodiversity in the green spaces. This data will help show the links between the type of green spaces, biodiversity and well-being and is still being analysed or on its way to publication.

Back to the findings. The research highlights the need for engagement with nature in everyday life. We found that people who spent less time outdoors in the last year improved more on nature connectedness. Further, those who had lower baseline nature connectedness scores improved more. Overall, this is supportive of targeting those who spend little time outside and provides a simple engagement strategy.

Similarly, we found that those who had spent more time outdoors as a child showed a greater improvement in nature connectedness scores. There is some discussion that childhood exposure to nature is important for nature connectedness as an adult, but there have been no longitudinal studies to evidence this, so this is an interesting finding and perhaps evidence of a ‘latent nature connectedness’ – we know childhood connection drops sharply in adolescence. It is possible that a childhood connection with nature is reignited by noticing the good things in nature, this then results in a renewed nature connectedness and subsequent wellbeing benefits. There’s also the potential for use to help address the ‘teenage dip‘ in connection.

Looking at the mechanisms for the benefits in mental health, increased nature connectedness (25% higher sustained for 1 month) was a predictor of increased wellbeing in users of the app. This supports the growing importance of the psychological construct of nature connectedness as a new paradigm for wellbeing. In addition, increased relaxed positive affect was a significant predictor of the improvement in wellbeing in the green space condition.

This study was the first to use a multidimensional measure of positive affect, which distinguishes low arousal/positive valence affects (such as relaxed and safe positive affects) from high arousal/positive valence affects (such as activated positive affects) as an outcome measure for a nature connectedness intervention. Low arousal positive affects, such as relaxation, have been found to uniquely predict life satisfaction, depression, wellbeing, mindfulness, anxiety, and stress beyond high arousal positive affects, such as activation. The inclusion of the Types of Positive Affect Scale revealed a unique finding: an intervention which increased nature connectedness and relaxed positive affect predicted increased wellbeing. The finding that relaxed positive affect and nature connectedness were predictors of increased wellbeing is also consistent with our affect regulation account of wellbeing through nature, which states that low arousal positive affect such as relaxation and high arousal activated positive affect, such as excitement, can offer unique inputs to wellbeing through nature connectedness.

In sum, this study provides the first controlled experimental research evidence that a nature-based prescription can be effective in an urban environment. Prompting simple everyday engagement with urban nature can help improve nature connection and wellbeing. This can be done using a portable, widely accessible and cost-effective smartphone app, and is therefore of interest to public health organisations seeking solutions to mental health issues in an increasingly urbanised society.

 

 

McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International journal of environmental research and public health16(18), 3373.

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J., & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: Aspects of nearby nature associated with improved connection to nature. Environmental Values24(5), 603-619.

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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