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Nature increased well-being during the pandemic

Many studies have shown that exposure to nature has beneficial effects on mental health and well-being. Now, a team of scientists led by Cornell University has explored what kind of nature experiences were associated with a greater sense of well-being during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their findings suggest that spending time in nature close to home was linked to a greater sense of well-being compared to longer, more intense nature excursions, or with nature experienced “second-hand” through media.

“I think the thing that really calls to me from this work is the importance of just being able to have a bit of nature that’s close by and that you can access even for a short time,” said study lead author Tina Phillips, an expert in Citizen Science at Cornell.

The scientists surveyed over 3,200 U.S. residents in October 2020, when many Covid-related lockdowns were still in place. Participants were asked to rate their levels of loneliness, recurrent negative thoughts, mental well-being, and how the pandemic affected them emotionally. Their answers were analyzed together with the frequency with which the respondents participated in three types of nature engagement: nearby nature (including activities close to home, such as gardening, birdwatching, taking short walks, or watching natural landscapes through a window); nature excursions (more intense experiences that required planning and travel, including fishing or hunting trips, backpacking, or kayaking); and nature media (indirect exposure to nature through watching documentaries and clips from wildlife cameras, or reading).

“I think the biggest surprise was that nature excursions were not correlated with better well-being. Loneliness was worse for people who did more of those activities, the emotional impact of the pandemic was worse, and reported mental health was worse. The other thing which surprised me was that, across the board, age was the number one predictor of positive well-being outcomes from exposure to nature,” Phillips said.

Moreover, the findings also highlighted the ongoing social justice issues around access to nature. “The pandemic laid bare a host of societal issues and inequities,” explained study co-author Nancy Wells, a professor of Human Ecology at Cornell. “It is often those with the greatest need who have the least access to nearby nature. Everyone should be able to access the natural environment within a short distance from home. We can make this a reality by protecting natural lands, creating parks, and implementing policies and programs to ensure access for all.”

Finally, the scientists found that reaping the emotional and mental benefits from nature does not have to take a lot of time, with participants reporting increased well-being from spending as little as ten minutes outdoors.

“We hope that we all can carry the lessons from the pandemic – and from this study – into the future, making time in nature a regular part of our routine,” Wells concluded.

The study is published in the journal People & Nature.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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