How Nature Heals Us

New evidence that natural beauty, even in small doses, reduces stress

Content Tools

Can contact with nature relieve anxiety and stress, aid healing, and increase concentration? It appears that it can, even when “contact” is defined in the loosest way. Some researchers now suggest that passive contact with nature, like looking at trees from a car, can be as therapeutic as a walk in the woods. It appears that nature can really provide nurture—for the young and old, healthy and sick, alike.

Here's why.

“We have two kinds of attention,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, an environmental psychologist and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois. The first is the “directed attention” we call on for tasks that require focus, like driving or doing our taxes. Directed attention tends to be tiring, however, and fatigue affects our ability to make good decisions and control destructive impulses. The best way to restore directed attention is to give it a rest by shifting to the second type, “involuntary attention,” which we display when we watch a fire or meditate, for instance. Looking at nature is another activity that gives our directed attention a chance to recover.

For example, Roger Ulrich and his colleagues at Texas A&M University found that people who commuted along scenic roads recovered more quickly from stressful driving conditions than those who saw billboards, buildings, and parking lots. Ulrich also noted something he termed an “inoculation” effect: Drivers who had taken the scenic route responded more calmly to stressful situations later on. Ulrich also looked at patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. The patients who could see trees from their hospital beds needed fewer painkillers and had shorter hospital stays than those who looked out on brick walls.

So, with all our efforts to alleviate stress—from aerobics and yoga to anti-anxiety pills—lmaybe the key is as simple as a garden. In fact, even a little bit of green seems to make a big impact. Some studies suggest that a houseplant or even a picture of nature can convey similar benefits.

“It used to be that we looked at cataclysmic events, like divorce or loss of a job, as stressors,” says Kathleen Wolf of the College of Forest Resources at the University of Washington. “But now we are seeing that our daily lives have constant small stressors, and the cumulative effect is significant. Consequently, even small, incremental contacts with nature in our daily lives are beneficial.”

In her study, Andrea Faber Taylor looked at children living in Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes housing project. The children she studied were all from the same socioeconomic bracket; all were African American; all lived in virtually identical apartments to which their families had been randomly assigned; and all lived on the second, third, or fourth floors, the best levels for viewing nature. The only difference was that some apartments overlooked trees and grass while others overlooked pavement.

Girls who could see nature from their windows were better able to concentrate, and to control impulsive behavior, as measured in standard psychological tests. These behaviors tend to help children resist peer pressure and sexual pressure, and help in other challenging situations.

“Our theory was that public housing is a very fatiguing environment,” says Faber Taylor. “It turns out that small amounts of greenery seem to make a big difference. You don’t have to live in Sherwood Forest to enjoy nature's benefits.”

By creating more green spaces, particularly in urban areas, we could minimize, or at least buffer, the stresses of everyday life and the long-term costs in mental and physical health associated with stress. Now that's a magic bullet.
Deb Aronson, Science & Spirit

From Science & Spirit (July/ Aug. 2003), a magazine that explores the common ground between modern scientific in-sight and the human imagination's need for beauty and mystery. Subscriptions: $23.99/yr. (6 issues) from 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20036.