It’s a routine that’s familiar enough to most people: You wake up, eat breakfast inside, hop on a bus or in your car, go straight into an artificially lit office where you sit for the duration of daylight hours before going straight home in the dark.
It’s also a routine that makes it easy enough for many people to go entire days without exposure to nature or much natural light (let alone natural human movement). In fact, research shows that we spend about 90 per cent of our days indoors.
Then consider the moments when you are sitting with sunshine on your face, the sensation of diving into the ocean, listening to birdsong, gazing at beautiful greenery or standing barefoot in the cool grass.
It’s calming, it’s invigorating and it turns out, it’s incredibly good for us.
Natural light resets, not only our circadian rhythm each day, which helps us to sleep, it stimulates hormones that improve our mood, energy levels and even our performance.
It makes intuitive sense that being in nature also has the power to transform our mood and health, something scientists have been cottoning onto.
Incorporating gardens in hospitals helps healing. Patients whose windows look out on leafy trees heal faster and need less pain medication than those who look out to a brick wall.
Now a rather delightful new study has found that bird watching is good for mental health.
In the study, published in the journal Bioscience, researchers from the University of Exeter found that those who could readily see birds, trees and greenery were less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.
Specifically, the number of birds people could see in the afternoon was associated with better mental health.
“This study starts to unpick the role that some key components of nature play for our mental well-being,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Daniel Cox.
“Birds around the home, and nature in general, show great promise in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.”
Separate research has found that just 10 minutes spent in or looking at nature is dose enough to improve the way we feel, while there is evidence that “green exercise” leads to positive short and long-term health outcomes.
“The type and amount of ‘nature’ required to enhance health and well-being varies among individuals,” says Claire Henderson-Wilson, of the Health Nature Sustainability Research Group at Deakin University. “For some, simply viewing a green landscape can allow them to feel relaxed and rejuvenated but for others, actually being in a park or garden provides them with opportunities to de-stress and feel calmer.”
While Henderson-Wilson says she has not come across a study exploring the benefits of twitching on mental health, “but certainly there is a lot of research which demonstrates that time spent in ‘nature’ (i.e. parks and gardens) is good for our mental health and well-being”.
She adds: “Much like this article, our studies have not demonstrated causation as such but have suggested that time spent in parks and community gardens can provide people with a range of mental health benefits. Here are some quotes from some of our study’s participants that capture this:
“It’s almost like a meditation for me to able to come to the park every day … it just helps me to be calm and to get my mental health under control.”
“Anyone who comes into this environment, feels that they are in a place of calm, peace, healing, and relaxation, which is a contrast to how our modern society works which is busy, crazy, fast, and noisy.”
There are various theories about why exactly nature (or twitching) is so healing. Henderson-Wilson cites the Harvard biologist and avid ant-watcher, Edward O. Wilson who coined the ‘biophilia hypothesis’; “That is we feel an innate connection to nature and this has flow on psychological benefits,” she says.
In his own words, Wilson said that when he looked at the diversity of nature, insect and animal or plant, “the sensation of maybe looking upon – I don’t want to get too poetic – of looking upon the face of creation”.