A scientist’s guide to life: How to get the best from nature

Lockdown may limit the time we can spend outdoors, but environmental psychologist Alex Smalley explains how you can get the benefits of being in nature, even if you’re stuck inside.

Nature is good for you

Studies prove this beyond doubt. We see biological markers of stress reduce and improvements in psychological wellbeing when people spend time in the natural world.

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Nature helps us to unwind after a difficult day. It can lead to an increase in positive emotions and a reduction in negative thought patterns, such as rumination. It’s good for the environment too. Research suggests that people who feel more connected to nature are more likely to develop pro-environmental behaviour.

You don’t need to go far

Nature is all around. Just look outside or open a window. Be purposeful. Take the time to stop, and really look and listen. You’ll start to notice things that you never spotted before.

Listening to nature is like a superpower

When you walk past a hedgerow, you can’t see the birds that are inside it. But if you learn to identify a few calls and then stop to listen, you might hear a wren, or a goldfinch, or a robin.

Need to know…

  1. Getting outdoors and spending time in nature has measurable positive effects on your wellbeing.
  2. Don’t just rely on your eyesight, if you want to notice wildlife. Sound will often lead you to things you can’t initially see.
  3. Technology can bring the outdoors in, with beneficial effects. Recorded or simulated nature is nearly as good as the real thing.

Linger in blue spaces

Natural environments are made up of many elements. Our research is starting to tease out which of them are most beneficial. When you ask people what they value, blue spaces, such as lakes, rivers and oceans, score highly.

Species richness is important too, as is birdsong. For me, nothing beats a blackbird on a rooftop at dusk. It instantly makes me feel at peace, and washes off the worst of the day.

Visit somewhere awesome

It could help shrink your worries. Studies suggest that when we’re in the presence of awe-inspiring nature, like a large waterfall or giant redwood, it can have a profound effect. It can make both you and your worries feel small, and promote altruistic behaviour.

Illustration of a woman stepping into nature © Joe Waldron
© Joe Waldron

If you can’t go out, try virtual nature

Over the last 12 months, as people have been less able to go out, we’ve been seeking out nature on TV, radio and online. Winterwatch’s Mindful Moments were very popular.

I think virtual nature has therapeutic potential in its own right, so it’s almost as if people have been self-medicating. Our Virtual Nature Experiment is looking at the effects of virtual nature on wellbeing. We know that if people are tired or stressed at the end of a day, these digital versions of nature can help them feel better.

Listen to digital soundscapes

When you close your eyes, you can travel anywhere, and it can be really relaxing. There’s lots of content at the BBC’s Soundscapes for Wellbeing website, including a sound effects archive that contains 33,000 sound recordings. So, if you want to kick back by listening to the birds of the Borneo rainforest, it’s right there for you.

Read more from A Scientist’s Guide to Life:

Virtual nature isn’t a substitute for the real thing…

…but it still has a positive effect. I’m interested in how we can use these virtual experiences to help those who literally can’t go out: people in care homes, patients recovering from surgery or NHS staff who work such long days that they don’t get to go outside. We would love to bring this learning into those kinds of spaces.

My take-home message?

Get out into nature if you can, but if you can’t, try listening to a soundscape on your radio. It might just be the next best thing.

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