Looking at trees can improve mental wellbeing, study finds

People walking in an urban environment who directed their gaze at natural elements such as flowers or trees reported less anxiety and better mood than those who focused on man-made objects

12th June 2024 about a 3 minute read
“If planners and landscape architects can attract people's attention to nature in their daily lives, such as on the way to work or school, this could potentially significantly reduce an individual's daily mental burden." Whitney Fleming, Brian Rizowy and Assaf Shwartz, study authors

Simply looking at elements of the natural world, such as trees, can improve people’s wellbeing, an innovative study has found.

The study, published in People and Nature, used eye-tracking technology to explore how investigate how it would affect people’s mental health if they focused on natural elements rather than man-made elements in an urban environment.

The research was carried out by Whitney Fleming, a Bangor University lecturer, with Brian Rizowy and Assaf Shwartz, both of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel. They recruited 117 adults for the study. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one that focused on natural elements such as trees (green group), one that focused on man-made elements such as buildings (grey group) and a third group that focused on a mix of both (mixed group).

Each participant wore eye-tracking glasses during a 45-minute guided walk around the town of Haifa and Institute of Technology campus. The route included 10 designated stopping points focusing on either natural or man-made elements, depending on the group.

Before and after the walk, participants completed surveys assessing their mood, anxiety levels and the restorative quality of the walk.

The glasses recorded where participants were looking throughout the walk, enabling researchers to quantify the amount of time spent focusing on natural (green) or man-made (grey) elements. The data showed that each group followed the researchers’ instructions, spending more time looking at the elements they had been asked to focus on.

Significant improvements in mood

The study found that participants who focused more on green elements reported significant improvements in mood and reductions in anxiety compared to those who focused on grey elements. They also showed higher levels of positive emotions and reported feeling more refreshed and rejuvenated.

“Our results showed that the time spent looking at trees specifically was associated with a reduction in state anxiety and increased perceived restorativeness. Increased perceived restorativeness was also related to the percentage of time spent viewing bushes and lawn, but viewing trees was the strongest predictor,” the researchers write.

The grey group did not show these improvements, while the mixed group had intermediate results.

According to the researchers, the findings have important implications for urban planning, arguing that designing urban spaces that incorporate natural elements could improve the mental wellbeing of people living in a city.

For example, they say, planners could prioritise green spaces, tree-lined streets, parks and ponds that invite people to pause and take in the natural beauty.

“If planners and landscape architects can attract people’s attention to nature in their daily lives, such as on the way to work or school, this could potentially significantly reduce an individual’s daily mental burden,” they write.

They also argue that their findings could be useful for mental health professionals. They suggest that professionals could incorporate guided attention exercises into therapy, encouraging patients to specifically focus on natural elements during walks or other outdoor activities.

The study provides “robust evidence,” the researchers argue, that the mental health benefits of nature are closely tied to where we focus our attention.

It means that all of us could improve our mental wellbeing by spending more time looking at trees, flowers and other natural elements. Consciously directing our gaze towards nature could make a “significant difference” in how we feel, they argue.

FCC Insight

This is the latest in a series of studies to demonstrate the mental health benefits of the natural world. It’s particularly interesting because it suggests that even simply looking at trees or other natural elements in an urban area can provide a mental health boost. The obvious limitation of the study is that it relies on self-reported measures of wellbeing  – an awareness that researchers are looking for evidence that staring at trees improves wellbeing may well be nudging participants into reporting an improvement in mood. That aside, there is now a good body of evidence to show the positive impact of nature on people’s mood, and it should encourage urban planners to integrate the natural world in their designs – and perhaps spur mental health professionals to find ways to include a focus on nature as part of their therapeutic approach.