Scientists explain why nature helps us

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

Today, a torrent of books on the subject – driven by bestsellers The secret life of trees by Peter Wohlleben (2017) – sylvotherapy (recharging one’s batteries in the woods) gathering more and more followers or proliferating “nature and well-being” galleries are many signs that we feel the need for green in our increasingly urbanized lives.

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

Researchers have recently given an overview of the various lines of research that have been explored and findings on the topic of human and nature well-being. The concept of well-being, as understood here, refers not only to health, as the absence of disease, but generally refers to the physical, mental and social state of well-being.

A video of the technique of heat therapy or well-being through trees. (Special Envoy/YouTube, 2017).

Nature as a cure

Connecting with nature enhances our physical and mental health.

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

Nature cures our ailments, and more than that, it also improves our abilities and cognitive functions, reduces fatigue and restores our attention span, which is strained by everyday life. It also contributes to our physical wellness: reducing pain, blood pressure, obesity or even speeding up recovery and preventing certain diseases.

En somme, la nature n’est pas simplement un substrat nécessaire dans lequel s’enracinent les cultures humaines, mais un terreau qui influence nos vies au quotidien et qui, peut-être, est justement ce qui permet à cestre cultures de et develop.

What nature are we talking about?

The nature in question can take very diverse forms: it can be elements of nature (stones, water, wind), animals, plants, landscapes (sea, mountain, forest), which do not necessarily belong to the biodiversity operating in a specific environment. environmental system.

For example, in 1984, a study actually showed that patients with a window looking out recover more quickly after surgeries than other patients without such a view.

Seeing nature will help heal faster.
Jacob Mayer / Unsplash

Is a few green plants or a picture of the sea enough to feel the benefits of nature? The question is important because it has potential to have consequences in terms of environmental protection and public health policy choices.

Nature rich in biodiversity

Studies converge on the idea that a healthy nature, that is, rich in biological and functional diversity, ensures good human health.

This observation may seem obvious, however, and a more systematic convergence of discussions between environmental and social issues is very recent. Media coverage of discussions about renewing the European license for glyphosate, a widely used herbicide in agriculture, or more broadly the increased demand for organic products, reflects the growing sensitivity of public opinion to these issues. When it comes to direct or dietary exposure, it is easy to imagine the relationship between degraded natural systems and negative effects on human health.

The added value of health and well-being, brought by the rich environment compared to the scattered elements of nature, still needs to be explored.

One area in which the benefits offered by exposure to biologically diverse environments are being demonstrated is chronic allergy and inflammatory disease. Exposure to many natural habitats usually allows the development of immune responses to allergens and other agents that can cause disease. 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 molecules.

Therefore the environment of the individuals must include a diverse source of microbes that allow adequate pollination.

According to the so-called biodiversity hypothesis, a decrease in human exposure to microbes would affect microorganisms, which could lead to the development of various diseases.

A dose of nature

The current challenge lies in the fact that a healthy nature is not limited to a chemical-free environment. Destruction of natural habitats and species, overexploitation of resources or even climate change are also factors of human origin that contribute to making nature less diverse and changing its function; This, in turn, puts our health and well-being at risk.

In what relationship with nature should one engage in order to realize its benefits? Should I look at it or touch it? And in what order?

Here again, the questions are important, as 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 such a poor natural environment that some authors refer to it as the “extinction of experience.”

It is sometimes difficult to isolate the parameters that affect human well-being from all the experiences that people have. That is why some authors propose the concept of nature’s “dose” as a research framework, which makes it possible to relate different durations, frequency, and intensity of experiences and exposure to nature. The various parameters that make up this “dose” are then processed according to the health of the individuals. Thus the significance of the benefits arising from the relationship with nature will depend on the dose of nature received.

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

See life in green

However, the complexity of the mechanisms of natural benefits to human well-being is still far from understood. Why is nature useful to us? For this question, the “biological life” hypothesis has been put forward, assuming that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other life forms. This interest in nature will be the product of a biological evolution that allows for the best possible adaptation to the environment.

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

If our well-being depends in part on the quality of our connection with nature, we can question the human and environmental consequences of this “disconnection” that has begun. To reverse this trend, the development of scientific research must be accompanied by the implementation of actions in this field.

It is necessary to rethink the approach to management policies, particularly in the field of urban planning, as it seems urgent to bring nature into the city to protect and enhance the biodiversity of these spaces.

At the same time, the field of education also has a responsibility to take measures to encourage young people to develop and maintain a relationship with nature as soon and as regularly as possible.

As biodiversity conservation struggles to align with agendas, recognizing human health and well-being as a component strongly dependent on favorable environmental conditions can be a crucial argument.

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