Why does nature make us happy?
A new scientific report from the University of Exeter (read here) has been shared widely on social media and wildlife news sites in the past few days and I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject it brings up. The report, in a nutshell, states that a survey of the mental health of 270 people correlated to the amount of exposure they have to nature in their daily lives (specifically how many birds they see) shows that if people simply see more wildlife they suffer reduced levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
For those of us already in on the secret (that is everyone who already loves nature) the revelation that nature is good for you is hardly a surprise – or news, as there have already been studies of a similar nature that have concluded pretty much the same thing. But this study is still important as it adds to the increasing pile of scientific data showing that nature is vital for human health (both physical and mental) and well-being.
It got me to thinking as to why nature produces such positive reactions in our brains and bodies – what evolutionary reasons are behind it and also what spiritual or artistic reasons might also be contributing to this. Speaking for myself, whenever I look at a bird, or an insect or a tree or flower or fish or lichen or spider or even an entire landscape, the worries and stresses that have built up on my shoulders vanish like vapour. Whether I am looking at a bird from a scientific, identification point of view or staring at an ancient oak from a spiritual point of view I feel happy and content and no other distracting thoughts enter my head. I have known for a long time that nature quite simply makes me very happy – happier than almost anything else in my life can make me.
From a scientific stand-point being exposed to wildlife of any sort makes your brain release happy chemicals because (and I’m hypothesizing here) your brain may be recognising that you are in a good, healthy environment with the potential of high food availability – that this is a place you should stay. Birds and plants suggest water sources, food sources, good climate etc. and therefore it is a good habitat for a human. Of course I doubt our brains consciously go through such a thought process, but it could be present as a deep-rooted and long established code in our genes, a basic instinct common to all humans.
Another thought I had is that perhaps nature helps make us feel less lonely, after all we humans do like to distance ourselves from our environment, we like to shut ourselves into our own fabricated landscapes of metal and concrete. But separating ourselves from the Earth we depend upon and truly belong in is a bit mad really, we fear the wild, but we need it for everything – not least our own sanity. Perhaps just seeing another living organism (that isn’t human) such as a Robin or a Ladybird or a Fox makes us feel good because it is reminding us that we are not alone in the universe, that we do share this planet and that we are not the only living things; that we have companions.
However I do not think that science can completely explain away all of the joy that we get from nature. There is the aesthetic side, the artistic element, we humans do love beautiful things – we fill entire museums and galleries full of our own art just so we can look at it because it is beautiful. Human perception of beauty is difficult to entirely shrug off as nothing more than chemical reactions in our brains, there is more to it than that. Nature is of course the original beauty, the original source of art; all colours and shapes and textures come from the natural world. Birds and wildflowers and trees and grass and water and mountains and tiny patterned moths are beautiful – and for whatever reason, beautiful things make us happy.
Hopefully, with all of this new research (of which I hope there will be more) adding to the argument that wildlife is greatly beneficial to human health on all levels, that it provides more than just ‘ecosystem services’, we might actually see some recognition of this by the governments of the world. It might just help to save some of our green spaces at least.
Image of juvenile Long-tailed Tits (if they don’t make you happy you have no soul) By N. P. Holmes from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6832308
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