In 2012, I quit my office-based job to become a freelance journalist with the hope of living a more balanced life. Long hours and commuting had left me feeling like time for a change.
I set up a desk in my spare room overlooking the garden, which was a neglected set of flowerbeds arranged around a brick courtyard. As the months passed, I found myself spending more time outdoors, tidying the garden or going for a walk around the local park in the afternoon sunshine. I began to notice the wildlife and became familiar with the annual cycle of plant life. I found that after working in the garden or walking outdoors, I felt calmer and more present, my productivity increased and my mood improved. Friends and family even remarked on the shift in me.
And science is now backing the benefits of green spaces on our mental health. 'I was astounded by the variety and range of the evidence,’ says author Lucy Jones, who unpacks some of these scientific studies in her book, Losing Eden, published this year to critical acclaim.
She discovered that time spent in nature is linked to lower stress, restored attention, a balanced nervous system, increased levels of cancer-fighting 'natural killer cells', the activation of neural pathways associated with calm, and decreased levels of anxiety and depression.
In Losing Eden she also details how simple pleasures, such as listening to birdsong or taking a walk in the woods, can reduce activity in areas of the brain associated with negative rumination, sadness, and decision-making. As a result, cortisol levels – the hormone associated with stress – have been shown to fall following these activities.
Astonishingly, one study showed that even just looking at fractal shapes – self-repeating patterns that vary in scale – can make us feel calmer and less irritable. These fractal shapes, which can be found everywhere in nature – think ferns, seashells, snowflakes and ocean waves – provoke high alpha waves in the brain’s frontal lobes and high beta waves in the parietal area, promoting a relaxed but focused state of mind. The evidence indicates that any view on to nature, even if it's via a screen or picture, can have measurable therapeutic benefits.
Author Sue Stuart-Smith picks up the argument in her bestselling book The Well Gardened Mind: Rediscovering Nature in the Modern World, also published this year. She suggests that modern life is eroding this beneficial connection to the natural world. 'Natural spaces are particularly rich in sensory pleasures,' she writes.
'These days we are increasingly surrounded by functional places lacking in character and individuality, like supermarkets and shopping malls. As a result, the notion of place in contemporary life has increasingly been reduced to a backdrop, and the interaction, if there is any, tends to be of a transient nature rather than a living relationship that might be sustaining.'
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in the UK, 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to stress, depression or anxiety. Other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have been much quicker to harness the power of the natural world to combat the anxiety caused by modern life.
In Losing Eden, Jones details how Japanese doctors prescribe mindful walks in the woods for patients who are suffering from anxiety induced by hectic urban life. Called shinrin-yoku, which translates as 'forest bathing', the practice was first proposed by the Japanese Forestry agency in the 1980s but has roots in ancient Shinto and Buddhist ideals of harmonic balance with nature. In South Korea, the government recently invested $14million in a National Centre for Forest Therapy where it is training 500 forest-therapy instructors.