Why nature does us good, scientists explain

In 2015, a survey conducted as part of the Fête de la nature revealed that 96% of French people who questioned perceived nature as a “place of well-being and rejuvenation”.

Today, the avalanche of books about it – driven by the bestseller The secret life of the trees by Peter Wohlleben (2017) -, sylvotherapy (recharging the batteries in the forest) which gathers more and more followers or the spread of “nature and well-being” fairs are just as many signs that we feel a need for green in our increasingly urbanized lives.

While the hypothesis of a connection between human well-being and nature has long been accepted, research conducted in such diverse fields of study as medicine, psychology, or even cognitive science validates this theory. We must also take into account the social and environmental upheavals of recent decades, which have an impact on nature and our relationship to it.

Recently, researchers have compiled an overview of the various research lines explored and the results around the theme of human well-being and nature. The term well-being, as it is understood here, refers not only to health, as the absence of illness, but more generally refers to a physical, mental and social state of well-being.

Video on fashion with sylvotherapy or wellness through trees. (Special Envoy / YouTube, 2017).

Nature as a means

Being in touch with nature promotes our physical and mental well-being.

Several studies observe a reduction in stress and depression, favored by the natural environment and conversely an improvement in self-esteem, the feeling of happiness or even creativity.

Nature heals our ailments, and more than that, it also improves our abilities and cognitive functions, reduces fatigue and restores our attention, which is so burdened by everyday life. It also participates in our physical well-being: reducing pain, blood pressure, obesity or even accelerating healing and preventing certain diseases.

In short, nature is not just a necessary substrate in which human cultures take root, but a soil that affects our daily lives and which is perhaps precisely what allows these cultures to grow and thrive.

What nature are we talking about?

The nature in question can take very diverse forms: it can be elements of nature (rock, water, wind), fauna, flora, landscapes (sea, mountain, forest) that do not necessarily belong to a biodiversity operating in a defined ecosystem .

For example, a study as early as 1984 showed that patients with an outside window healed faster after surgery than other patients without such a view.

A view of nature would help heal faster.
Jacob Meyer / Unsplash

Are a few green plants or a photograph of the sea enough to feel the benefits of nature? The issue is important as it potentially has implications for the choice of environmental protection and public health policy.

A nature rich in biodiversity

Studies converge on the idea that a nature with good health, that is, rich in biodiversity and functional, ensures good human health.

This observation may seem obvious, but the more systematic convergence of debates between environmental and social issues is quite recent. The media coverage of discussions about the renewal of the European license for glyphosate, a herbicide that is widespread in agriculture, or more generally the explosion in the demand for organic products, reflects the growing sensitivity of public opinion to these issues. When it comes to direct or dietary exposure, the relationship between degraded natural systems and adverse effects on human health is easy to imagine.

The added value for health and well-being that a rich environment provides compared to scattered natural elements has yet to be explored.

One area where the benefits of exposure to biodiversity environments are clearly illustrated is chronic allergies and inflammatory diseases. Exposure to a variety of natural habitats usually allows the development of immune responses to allergens and other factors that can cause disease. The lack of exposure to microbes, especially in early childhood, can lead to poor acclimatization of the body’s microbial community and an unexpected reaction to certain particles.

The environment of individuals must therefore include a diversified source of microbes that allow appropriate inoculation.

According to the so-called biodiversity hypothesis, the decrease in human exposure to the microbial population would affect the microbiota, which would lead to the development of various diseases.

A portion of nature

The current challenge is that a healthy nature is not limited to an environment without chemicals. The destruction of natural habitats and species, overexploitation of resources or even climate change are also factors of human origin which help to make nature less diversified and change its function; and in turn endanger our health and well-being.

In what relation to nature should one be engaged to perceive its benefits? Should I look at it or touch it? And with what regularity?

Here, too, the questions are important because they are part of a contemporary context of changing relationships with nature due to urban and sedentary lifestyles. We spend less and less time outdoors and for most of us in a poor natural environment, to the point that some writers refer to it as “the extinction of the experience”.

The parameters that affect human well-being are sometimes difficult to isolate from all the subjects’ lived experiences. This is the reason why some authors propose as a research framework the concept of “dose” of nature, which makes it possible to connect different durations, frequencies and intensities of experiences and exposure to nature. The various parameters that make up this “dose” are then treated according to the health of the individuals. The significance of the benefits of the relationship with nature will thus depend on the dose of nature received.

We all need nature. (WWF France / YouTube, 2016).

See life in green

Nevertheless, the complexity of the mechanisms of natural benefits for human well-being still eludes understanding. Why does nature do us good? To this question, the hypothesis of “biophilia” is put forward, which postulates that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other life forms. This interest in nature would be a product of a biological development that enables the best possible adaptation to the environment.

The rapid decline of natural habitats and the collapse of the diversity of animal and plant species constitute a worrying scenario for human well-being. In addition, modern lifestyles for a large number of individuals result in a lower direct exposure to the natural environment.

If our well-being depends in part on the quality of our attachment to nature, we may wonder at the human and environmental consequences of this “decoupling” that begins. To reverse this trend, the development of scientific research must be accompanied by the implementation of actions in the field.

It is necessary to reconsider the approach to management policies, especially in the field of urban planning, where it seems urgent to bring nature into the city, in order to protect and promote the biodiversity of these spaces.

At the same time, the field of education also has a responsibility to initiate initiatives that encourage young people to develop and maintain a relationship with nature as early and as regularly as possible.

While the conservation of biodiversity is struggling to fit into the agenda, the recognition of human health and well-being as an element that is strictly dependent on favorable environmental conditions can be a crucial argument.

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