New research led by King’s College London has found that getting outside and enjoying nature can reduce feelings of loneliness by up to 28 percent in city dwellers. This is the first study about loneliness that uses real time data from a phone app (the Urban Mind app) instead of asking participants questions after an event already happened.
Loneliness is considered a major public health problem, increasing the risk of death more than air pollution or obesity. In order to assess how contact with nature could alleviate feelings of loneliness, researchers collected data from 756 participants using the Urban Mind app, which prompted them to regularly answer questions on topics such as loneliness, overcrowding, social inclusion, and the natural environment.
After adjusting for factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, occupation, and education, the scientists found a significant link between lower levels of loneliness and contact with nature. “There can be aspects such as natural features and social inclusivity which can actually decrease loneliness,” said study senior author Andrea Mechelli, a professor of Early Intervention in Mental Health at King’s College London.
According to Mechelli and his colleagues, “people experience different levels of loneliness throughout the day depending on their surrounding environment.”
While feelings of overcrowding increased loneliness by an average of 39 percent, when people were able to see trees or the sky, or heard birdsong, their feelings of loneliness decreased by 28 percent.
The scientists argue that natural places in cities can reduce loneliness by enhancing feelings of attachment to a place, or by providing more possibilities to socialize.
“It has long been recognized that having access to natural environments can foster social interactions and connectedness. This study adds further weight to existing evidence of our affinity for natural environments and the potential benefits for social wellbeing,” explained Christopher Gidlow, a professor of Applied Health Research at Staffordshire University.
“Familiarity with environments was not measured, but is likely to be at play as people tend to visit the same natural environments. Such familiarity has been linked with feeling more connected to a place, with possible mental health benefits,” he added.
“Cities are probably the only habitat that is increasing at a high rate. So we should be creating urban habitats where people can thrive,” urged study co-author Johanna Gibbons, a landscape architect. “Nature is a critical component of that because, I believe deep in our souls, there are really deep connections with natural forces.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.