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Episode 198: Nature

This week is Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, a week long promotion from the Mental Health Foundation. This year their focus has been on Nature. Experiencing it, sharing it and talking about it.
The reason for this is because there's been tons of research over the years that's shown the importance of experiencing and appreciating the natural world. But I dont want it to be just for one week. I dont want people to only consider that there's more to life than concrete and offices for a few days and then just go back to what they were doing and how they were feeling for the other 51 weeks of the year.
A quick spoiler if you havent read my book 15 Minutes to Happiness yet. The foundations to it are not about the quick short term tricks and tips to boost your happiness in the moment. I include those too, obviously, because that's what people want. But for long lasting permanent changes, especially if we have some form of depression, it might take a whole new mindset and perspective on the world. It might mean going against everything that society has suggested is the right way to live.
I hope I'm not being naive here, but I don't think our Governments want us to be unhappy. I know it looks like it sometimes but they don't. But they want funding, and that comes from taxes which comes from us earning and spending money. If we want to be happy then we need to compensate for that, because theres always going to be businesses and people subtly trying to tell you that your life isn't good enough unless you buy something. That you'll be missing out on something emotionally valuable if you dont have a Sky TV subscription, and Netflix, and Amazon Prime and Disney Plus and Crunchyroll if you like your Anime.
And that's nothing compared to the extra car on the drive yet there's nothing in the fridge.

I tell you all this because the natural world doesn't cost us anything, but it's always there and has the potential to make us feel so much better than having an extra car on the drive would.

But if we dont know how good nature is for us then we wont take advantage of it because we'll carry on assuming that we need a new iPad instead and we'll be looking in all the wrong places to improve our mental health. So I'm glad that the Mental Health Foundation chose nature as their theme for this year because it's got the potential to open up a whole new world for people, and with it a whole new perspective.

And this isn't anything new to be honest. Its been studied for decades. Marc Berman is one character that has watched over a few of these studies. He's an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. He gets involved in the Cognition, Social and Integrative Neuroscience programs. Back in 2008 he headed up a team that published a really interesting article in the journal Psychological Science. It was simply called "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature" and had this amazing introduction:

Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost. Such a therapy has been known to philosophers, writers, and lay people alike: interacting with nature.

In these studies they wanted to look at the cognitive benefits of walking in different places, with a mood test and some memory tests. We already know that any exercise is likely to improve our brain power but if you get half of the participants to walk around a park for 2.8 miles and ask the other half to go for a 2.8 mile walk around the town they could compare how they scored on memory tests. They had a maximum possible score of 14 and would do it before they walked and then again an hour later when they got back.
Whether they'd walked in the park or walked along a high street their scores went up. But here's the clever thing they asked them to come back a month later and do it again but assigned them to the other walk so they could do a proper comparison. Turns out that walking anywhere does improve your score but only by half as much if you do it downtown compared to the exact distance walking round a park.
In one group the average only went up by half a point when walking in a town but went up by 1 and a half points when round the park. So it gave them 3 times the benefit. Being able to remember a 6 digit number instead of a 5 digit number might not sound like much, but it shows that something is going on. That either the inclusion of the natural world or the exclusion of a concrete and car filled one is good for us.
They did this experiment again a couple of years later. Only this time they recruited people who had mild to severe depression so they could see if there were any effects there. It was thought that spending time walking anywhere could induce rumination, make them think about their problems more and not be very beneficial either for mood or memory. So this time as well as the memory task and a mood test they also asked people before they went for the walk to think about what they described as an "unresolved negative autobiographical event" to prime some rumination. This is not normally a very nice thing to do with someone with depression, to ask them to think about something that's gone wrong in their life that hasn't been resolved but it turns out that, even if you've been primed for negativity first, going for a walk in nature still improves your sense of wellbeing to a higher level than it was before the rumination. Even if whilst they were walking they were still thinking about their problems.
Now as before their wellbeing score went up even if they were walking around the town but nowhere near as much as it did when walking around a park. So we know that our environment has a big part to play in why movement is good for us. Interestingly, these same people also did a study where the participants weren't moving, instead they were just looking at pictures of nature or pictures of an urban environment and they found the same thing. That just being primed to think about nature was enough to improve mood and memory. But when primed to think about an urban environment there were no increases at all. So it's all about nature.

If you go back to 2020 and that very first lockdown, anecdotally one of the best ways that people said they got through it was because they were able to get out and go for a walk along the miles and miles of public footpaths that are around us and canalside walks and rivers.
Even running through cities we've got canals and rivers, trees and green spaces. Birds and other wildlife. And I highly recommend you include experiencing these things into your life. It doesn't need to be every day, but as often as you can make the time for. Even weekly would be great, but just do what you can.

There are 2 particular Twitter accounts that I follow that post some wonderfully inspirational photos and videos.
One is a guy called Nick Ray who lives in Tobermory, and makes these gorgeous videos as he kayaks around the Isle of Mull. Nick has had some severe bouts of depression in the past and I think it's only because of his regular experiences in nature that he's been able to (forgive the pun) stay afloat. His photos and videos are absolutely stunning.
The other is the Photographer Astrid Tontson, she takes these amazing photos and videos around Londons parks and water ways. Whenever we think of London most people tend to think of concrete, petrol fumes and a faint scent of the sewers. Astrid helps to show us that there's a lot more to London than that and that it's realistic to also associate it with a baby bunny nibbling on some grass or birdsong as you watch some deer mooching around.

This world isn't all greed and pain. There's a lot of beauty in it too and there's never a bad time to start looking for it. After all we're far more likely to find the things that what we're looking for.

Nick Ray

Astrid Tontson