Just looking at birds may help to keep you happier

    27 February 2017

    The more birds you see on any given afternoon, the less likely you are to be stressed and anxious, according to research published in the Bioscience journal.

    The study, by the University of Exeter, found an association between lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress and the number of birds, shrubs and trees people saw.

    The positive association applied regardless of species and whether or not it was in an urban or rural setting, and after controlling for differences in deprivation, age, income and other socio-demographic factors.

    The researchers carried out mental health surveys with 263 people from areas around Bedford, Luton and Milton Keynes. They also found that those who spent less time outdoors were more likely to report higher levels of depression and anxiety.

    Dr Daniel Cox, the study’s lead author, said: ‘This study starts to unpick the role that some key components of nature play for our mental well-being.

    ‘Birds around the home, and nature in general, show great promise in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.’

    Instant analysis
    This study investigated the relationship between exposure to nature and mood, drawing upon the attention-restoration theory which, according to the authors, ‘proposes that the natural world promotes recovery from mental fatigue’ after any prolonged period of concentration.

    An online questionnaire was delivered to over 1,000 participants in an area known as the Cranfield triangle, encompassing Milton Keynes, Luton, and Bedford. The logic is that this region has great variation in population density.

    However, the actual sample used was only 263; they were self-selected, not chosen at random, and also offered an incentive to take part. This means they may not be representative of the population from which they were drawn and the incentive may have influenced the results. The participants self-reported the severity of their mood disorders without the assessment of a medical professional and so the results need to be interpreted in that light.

    The assessment of flora and fauna was all estimated by the participants themselves and so it is not a given that these were the exact conditions experienced.

    While the correlation between mood and nature was highly significant, again this doesn’t tell you anything about the cause of the relationship. For example, do happier people actively seek nature more or does a lack of exposure to nature lead to higher rates of depression, or is there some other factor? Also, why was it only the presence of birds in the afternoon which was associated with less depression — why not in the morning?

    These benefits are likely to be provided via two pathways: first, by increasing the attractiveness and appeal of green space so people are more likely to spend time outside, and second by increasing the visual complexity of the landscape, enhancing its effect on mental restoration and well-being.

    This is a fascinating but flawed study which, while giving an insight into how nature might affect mental health, struggles to tell us why this is so.
    Research score: 3/5