Study suggests exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong in cities beneficial for mental wellbeing

Researchers at King's College London, landscape architects J & L Gibbons and art foundation Nomad Projects have used smartphone-based technology to assess the relationship between nature in cities and momentary mental wellbeing in real time. They found that (i) being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky, and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing, and that (ii) the beneficial effects of nature were especially evident in those individuals with greater levels of impulsivity who are at greater risk of mental health issues.

Their paper, 'Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the impact of Nature on Mental Wellbeing in Real Time' has been published in BioScience today (Wednesday 10 January).

The researchers developed a smartphone-based app, Urban Mind, to examine how exposure to natural features in cities affects a person's mental wellbeing.

The Urban Mind app monitored 108 individuals who collectively completed 3,013 assessments over a one-week period.

In each assessment, participants answered several questions about their current environment and momentary mental wellbeing. GPS-based geotagging was used to monitor their exact location throughout the 1-week trial.

The results showed significant immediate and time lagged associations with mental wellbeing for several natural features: trees, the sky and birdsong. These associations were still evident several hours after exposure to trees, the sky and birdsong had taken place, indicating time-lasting benefits.

The investigators were interested in whether the beneficial effects of nature might vary from one individual to another, depending on their risk of developing poor mental health. To assess this each participant was rated on "trait impulsivity" - a psychological measure of one's tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences, and a predictor of higher risk of developing addictive disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder. This revealed that the beneficial impact of nature on mental wellbeing was greater in people with higher levels of trait impulsivity and a higher risk of developing mental health issues.

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