Woman looking at trees

Stopping for just a few moments to listen to birdsong can be beneficial

Dr Michael Pocock writes about research exploring people's connection to nature and how it might relate to wellbeing...

This week (10-16 May 2021) is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme for the week is ‘nature’. This is for very good reason because engaging with nature is valuable. Many of us have appreciated nature even more over the past year1. Who hasn’t, when needing a break from work, life or the constant bad news, stood outside for a few moments to catch a breath, hear birdsong, look at the wind in a tree, or smell fresh air?

The importance of nature to our individual wellbeing has been studied in many projects in the past. A recently published study showed that, across many different countries, the level of personal engagement with nature relates to individual wellbeing2. Sadly the UK ranked low on both people’s connection to nature, people’s visits to ‘green spaces’ and on people’s wellbeing. And this is not simply an individual issue – issues to do with mental health are a major cost to the economy and the health service and nature-based interventions could help to reduce these3.

At UKCEH we ran a project last year called Nature Up Close and Personal. More than 1000 people across the UK got involved in testing the effects of different types of nature-based activity on their connection to nature and wellbeing. We are still analysing the results, but one of the activities that we looked at was the impact of citizen science on our connection to nature – and it is looking positive that nature-based citizen science can enhance our connection to nature*.

This preliminary analysis confirms findings from other people’s research: although spending time in nature in good (one paper4 recommended two hours per week), it is the quality of the engagement with nature that is more important than the length of time5. The good news is that a few minutes of time intentionally engaging with nature (stopping to listen to birdsong, or watching the behaviour of an insect on a flower, or pausing to notice a plant growing through the cracks in the pavement) can be more beneficial for our nature connectedness than spending ages ‘in nature’ but not really engaging with it. And that’s great news for the majority of us who have work and other responsibilities that can keep us busy indoors!

Three photos showing a butterfly app, a man looking at nature and a butterfly on a flower

If you want to engage with nature intentionally, then you might like to try getting involved with ‘citizen science’. At UKCEH we’re involved in running a wide range of citizen science projects catering for many different interests. You might particularly like to look for butterflies or ladybirds using our dedicated smartphone apps or have a go at pollinator monitoring by counting the different insects visiting a patch of flowers over 10 minutes.

If you take part in nature-based citizen science you will be contributing to valuable data on changes in our environment but, if you really notice and enjoy the nature that you are recording, all the evidence says that you’ll be supporting your own wellbeing at the same time. What a wonderful way to spend a few minutes this week!

Michael Pocock

References

1. Natural England. The People and Nature Survey for England: Monthly interim indicators for May 2020 (Experimental Statistics).

2. White, M P et al. Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries. Sci. Rep. 11, 8903 (2021).

3. Pretty, J & Barton, J. Nature-Based Interventions and Mind–Body Interventions: Saving Public Health Costs Whilst Increasing Life Satisfaction and Happiness. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public. Health 17, 7769 (2020).

4. White, M P et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci. Rep. 9, 7730 (2019).

5. Richardson, M, Passmore, H-A, Lumber, R, Thomas, R & Hunt, A. Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. Int. J. Wellbeing 11, (2021).

*We expect that the results from the project will be released later this year.

Additional links

Mental Health Awareness Week