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Hug a tree – the evidence shows it really will make you feel better

We know that trees have many benefits. In forests they provide habitat, wood, biodiversity and ecosystem services. In cities, they can mitigate the urban heat island effect by cooling the air and reducing…

Research shows exposure to nature can relieve symptoms of ADHD in children. Tatters:)/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

We know that trees have many benefits. In forests they provide habitat, wood, biodiversity and ecosystem services. In cities, they can mitigate the urban heat island effect by cooling the air and reducing greenhouse gases.

But, perhaps surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that trees are also good for our mental health.

Are we all tree-huggers?

The idea that humans are intimately connected to the earth has persisted throughout human history and across cultures. In the western world, this connection was most recently described by eminent biogeographer E.O. Wilson in his 1984 book Biophilia. Wilson notes that humans naturally like to be around other living things.

This theory helps to explain why people prefer green scenes to urban scenes, why pet owners are happier and healthier, and possibly why we’re so obsessed with cute and cuddly animals.

This hypothesis was the basis of “connection to nature”. Psychologists have now developed multiple scales used by researchers to determine how connected a person is, and how we might be able to increase our connection to our benefit.

Connection to nature research is still developing, but early results seem to indicate that how connected to nature you are is related to your environmental behaviours, such as participation in recycling programs and an increase in overall well-being and happiness.

Because it is still a new line of research, the relative connection to nature of folks who live in urban areas and cities versus those of us living in rural places has yet to be established. But many researchers and environmental educators have come to suspect that we are becoming disconnected from nature.

Tree hugging should be encouraged. Neil Jenkins/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Nature-deficit disorder

This disconnect from nature was set out in 2005 by American writer Richard Louv in his book The Last Child in the Woods. Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” which means that modern humans have become disconnected from nature through our daily activities and this disconnect has had negative consequences in terms of mental and physical health. Proof of this hypothesis so far lies in studies that show how people with “modern” ailments, such as ADHD, anxiety or depression feel better with exposure to nature.

Based in North America, the Children & Nature Network has pages and pages of summarised research from academics around the world that seems to indicate a strong likelihood this disconnect is a real phenomenon. The sheer number of studies and their results showing the miracle cure of nature can be overwhelming at times.

There are studies represented such as:

Do yourself a favour, skim the pages of research summarised in short abstract form on the Children & Nature Network website. You may start to wonder why we’re not hearing more about getting our children and ourselves back outside.

This research also clearly highlights the important role that urban trees play in cities: their enormous social and psychological benefits may be even greater than ecological benefits.

Stressed at work? Your office might benefit from some folliage. srv007/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Reconnecting with the natural world

So what are our next steps? As I see it, there are two things that must be done.

First, as researchers we really need to directly test the idea of a disconnect particularly between urban/built up areas and more rural areas with plentiful trees. We need to know if people living in areas with fewer trees and natural environments are more disconnected from nature than those living in places where there are abundant trees and wildlife. Deeper still, we could also ask what interventions seem to connect folks to nature in a meaningful way?

Second and most importantly, if we are disconnected from nature, what can we do about it? Fortunately the above studies and resources show us many different activities and ideas we can use to increase our nature exposure.

Just a few ideas to try:

  • Bring a plant into your office.

  • Ask council to plant a street tree outside your office window or better yet all around town.

  • When walking, choose the path through the park instead of around it.

  • Take your children to the park, to the natural sections as well as the play equipment.

  • Practise the art of gardening or even veggie gardening.

  • Plant a tree.

  • Spend some time sitting under a tree. And if you’re so inclined, maybe even give it a cuddle.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. grant moule

    Consultant

    Good article. I always find taking a walk in the natural environment is the most relaxing (especially compared to an urban environment, the denser the living the less relaxing, more stressful it is).

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  2. Brad Farrant

    logged in via email @hotmail.com

    Great article, thanks Shelby

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  3. Dean Frenkel

    logged in via Facebook

    Oh it is fantastic that this is being discussed finally. “Nature-deficit disorder” and excessive human-made noise surely has a huge effect on the mental health and illness. I like the term 'cosmosis' as a process of connecting with nature.

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  4. Madeleine Innocent

    holistic health practitioner

    Can someone please tell this to Abbott and the Tassie government who are about to plunder the hard fought protected forests there.

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    1. Jim Howe

      Neurologist at Neuropalliative rehabilitation

      In reply to Madeleine Innocent

      I don't think they can hear anything except the rustling of money Madeleine.

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  5. Genevieve Simpson

    PhD Candidate at School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia

    I think there are similar studies around access to natural light in home and work environments and I'm also curious as to whether there is another link to access to natural air flow. I personally hate air con, and feel I'm more comfortable when I have some sense of what the temperature is really like outside and have access to 'fresh' air. Maybe all indications that our physiology is more closely linked to the natural world than we care to admit?

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  6. Russell Edwards

    logged in via Facebook

    You know, environmentalists and hunters en masse have been saying this for decades. The hunters have also said that going and looking at nature (as Other) is no substitute for actual, meaningful, purposeful, personal, respectful participation in it. They've also said that domestic nature (gardening/farming) is no substitute for wild nature (foraging/hunting). (They've also pointed out that the strongest anti-hunting rhetoric comes from people living in the densest urban areas, which is no coincidence…

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    1. Shelby Gull Laird
      Shelby Gull Laird is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Lecturer, School of Environmental Sciences at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Hi, Russell, thanks for your insight. You're right in noting that I have taken a very behaviourist perspective in this piece, largely as that is the area of research I find myself concerned with at the moment. I am very well-versed in Leopold and quite familiar with a large variety of literature on hunting and the experiences of hunters (being originally from America where hunting is looked upon in a much different way than Australia). I am not sure the complete experience you describe is something…

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    2. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shelby Gull Laird

      Thanks for your reply, Shelby, just a quick thought- and hopefully time for a longer one later.

      Every time I walk past someone begging for food money in the city, I think, wouldn't it be great if it was possible to mentor these people to gain a proportion of their food and shelter from nature? If you think about it, it's actually not a practical problem at all. The only barriers are legal and social. Plenty of feral animals (and fish) to eat, public parks to occupy, natural and discarded materials to use for construction and heating, etc. But in fact it's illegal to do this on a permanent basis even on remote crown land. The reasons for this I think cut pretty close to the bone of our culture's values and of its economic system (the two becoming harder and harder to distinguish). You're allowed to be propertied, or work, or both, but not neither.

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    3. Georgina Byrne
      Georgina Byrne is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer at Farming

      In reply to Shelby Gull Laird

      Interesting article, interesting responses. Thanks all round. I've today listened to a programme on Radio National concerning urban greening (vertical and rooftop gardens) which included some reportage of Singaporeans' efforts in regard to public housing, which if I remember rightly, makes up 80% of the housing stock there. Efforts are being made in this area by the Sydney City Council too, it seems but where do we, the general public, find out about such positive stuff? About thirty years ago a…

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    4. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shelby Gull Laird

      A few more thoughts.

      Certainly a lot of hunters are not environmentalists--an anthropocentric, dominionistic worldview can lead people to hunt just as surely as a biocentric egalitarian worldview can. So the research question would be, not is hunting participation numerically correlated with "environmental connection", but rather is there a subset of hunters who are environmentally connected? And do they see hunting as instrumental to that connection? The answer to both is yes, a good recent starting…

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    5. Dean Frenkel

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Russell, I'd suggest that it is delusory to think that hunting is nature-connected. It is no different to suggesting that cannibalism or rape is connected to nature. Certainly there is a primal caveman state that hunters descend to but to vandalise nature and disrespect the life of other species is actually disconnected form nature; probably even psychotic. To really discover about connections to nature it'd be better to consult with those sensitive to it.

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    6. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dean Frenkel

      In another comment, you rightly pointed out indigenous people as being the "experts on nature connection." I wonder how they would react to your characterisation of their way of feeding themselves as disrespectful vandalism, psychotic and akin to cannabalism and rape.

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    7. Dean Frenkel

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Edwards

      Russell, I was not commenting on the age-old practice of indigenous traditional hunting, but on recreational hunters who strike terror and vandalize the environment for sport. Indigenous peoples around the world have been known to be respectful and even worship the spirits of the animals they hunt. I believe that for cultural genocide reasons indigenous people should ethically be allowed to hunt for survival but that others should cease. To me the averaged western man has no right to hunt.

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    8. Russell Edwards

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dean Frenkel

      So in your view it's impossible for a Westerner (or just a Western man?) to eschew his (or her?) cultural programming and develop a similar, deep respect for the living and non-living elements of the natural world? A reverential view which sees himself (or herself?) as a member of that community and which attaches profound significance to the natural processes by which matter, energy and spirit are transferred between living things, including himself (or herself)?

      If it's impossible, then I'm…

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  7. Dean Frenkel

    logged in via Facebook

    Shelby, I'd suggest that the best experts on nature connection are indigenous people - and that nature-deficit disorder” may be central to the malaise of indigenous peoples in urban societies. As a throat singer I have learned that throat singing is among the most effective ways of connecting to nature. Most throat singing cultures are animistic and they sing and connect to the spirits of the animals they worship. The controlled breathing raises levels of consciousness and the singing techniques establish an aural connection to the environment.

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    1. Shelby Gull Laird
      Shelby Gull Laird is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Lecturer, School of Environmental Sciences at Charles Sturt University

      In reply to Dean Frenkel

      Dean, This is an issue that needs much more study! I think 'nature-deficit' may be a plausible hypothesis for indigenous people in urban societies but it does need more study. Many of these issues seem intuitive but are not thoroughly studied.

      Ways of connecting to nature seem to be diverse and may even vary by individual. This is something that I am interested in moving towards with my research, including various activities such as art and music, consumptive use, outdoor recreation and technology fasting experiences.

      Thanks for your insight, provides some food for thought.

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    2. Dean Frenkel

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Shelby Gull Laird

      I agree that this issue demands more study. As with other under-studied areas there are two truths: existing realities and academically confirmed realities. But another exciting and related area concerns the many different levels of nature connection/ disconnection. It's all exotic but necessary food for thought.

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