Nature is amazing, isn’t it? Science tells us that it’s vital for our wellbeing – whether it be by lifting our mood or helping us heal after a medical operation. Yet so often we take it for granted. Here, as part of an ongoing set of posts that explores NOW’s vision of people and the planet thriving together, our Director, Roger Higman, looks at the importance of the natural world to our wellbeing.
Take a deep breath! It feels good, doesn’t it? Breathing is perhaps the most immediate expression of our dependence on nature – and the value of nature to our wellbeing. We breathe without thinking – about 22,000 times every day! Yet the air that we breathe is a biological construct. Its active constituent, oxygen, is manufactured by the plants around us. We depend on it – and therefore on them – to survive.
And breathing is symbolic of our much deeper dependence on nature and its much deeper value to us. As for air, so for water, for food, for fertile soils, for most of our medicines, for many of the textiles that we use for clothing and the many varieties of wood we use to make our homes and the things in them.
And so also for the natural systems that clean our waste and underpin the supply of the goods that we take for granted, including, of course, a stable and equable climate. So too, for the inspiration for much of our poetry, our imagery and our symbolism.
Nature gives a lot to us – and it gives it for free. A landmark study over 20 years ago suggested that the value of nature’s gifts to humanity far outstrips the value that we create ourselves – perhaps by a factor of three.
More recently, there has been a wealth of research to show that access to and connection with nature has direct benefits for our health and wellbeing. People who are well connected to nature tend to be happier than those who aren’t. This isn’t so much about living in the countryside as about noticing the nature that is around us – whether by smelling a flower or listening to bird song or even taking the time to sit quietly in a local woodland.
Of course, this is harder if you live in a big city. There is an urgent need to bring more nature into our towns and cities. This is why the Network of Wellbeing backs the Nature for Everyone campaign led by the Wildlife and Countryside Link.
But nature is everywhere. When I lived in a flat on a busy road in North London, I found joy watching the Herons and Canada Geese that flew over, the Mistle Thrush that sung in the tree outside, the foxes that built a den in my neighbour’s garden and even the flowers I saw on the walk to the nearest tube station.
Helping people to connect with nature locally – by improving paths, addressing safety concerns or simply showing them what’s there – is as important as planting trees or providing new green spaces. And connecting people to nature strengthens their resolve to protect it.
Ultimately, if we are to sustain the natural world, and its gifts to us, we need to curb the demands we make of it, whether through our consumption of natural resources or the generation of waste and pollution.
Fortunately, care for nature by taking environmental action has also been shown to boost our mental health.