Regular time spent in nature is more beneficial to the mental well-being of poorer people than richer people
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Nature can help alleviate income-related health disparities, according to a new study from the University of Vienna and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna. Research has found a strong correlation between weekly contact with nature and improved physical and mental well-being in people on lower incomes than those on higher incomes. This benefit was only seen in people who actively visited or engaged with nature, and not among those who simply lived in or near green spaces. Thus, this study revealed that in fact doing something – bird watching, gardening, photography, hiking, frisbee, cycling, or another activity – was more important than where the person lived.
This makes sense, if you think about it. People trying to live on low incomes are under a lot of stress, which means they are at high risk of developing or suffering from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. But as this study concludes, one way to improve mental health is to escape worries by being in nature. This “ecotherapy” is associated with lower stress levels, better immune function, better cognitive performance, better sleep, greater self-esteem and greater life satisfaction.
We have long known about the benefits of nature for physical health, but the benefits for mental health in relation to lower socioeconomic status have been mixed: for example, one study demonstrated that the potential access and use of public and private parks, vegetable gardens are associated differently with mental health outcomes in different groups (e.g., separating by age and sex), therefore it has been speculated that this is associated with the different types of activities associated with different local environments (ref).
Interestingly, another study found that green space measures amount did not change the effect of socioeconomic variables on depression and anxiety scores, but measures of green space quality did (ref.). What defines the quality of a green or blue space? In short, it must be attractive. Growing evidence suggests that attractiveness increases recreational contact with nature and this may be more important for mental health and well-being than neighborhood greenness/blueness by itself (ref.). And even more, the classify Natural spaces that attract different people can also vary, as I shared with you a few months ago (more here).
To conduct this study, researchers interviewed 2,300 individuals across Austria who were representative in terms of age, gender and region. The team’s findings suggest that while people with higher incomes generally reported greater well-being regardless of how often they visited nature, mental well-being among the poorest in society improved greatly among those who visited nature. frequently. In fact, poorer individuals who visited urban parks or other natural environments several times a week had nearly as high levels of well-being as wealthier respondents. This pattern was clearly demonstrated both for Austria as a whole and for individuals living in the urban areas of Vienna.
“What the results show is that the well-being benefits of visiting nature at least once a week throughout the year are similar to those of a €1,000 increase in income per year,” said lead author Leonie Fian, PhD student. studying pro-environmental behaviors and effects of exposure to nature as part of the Environmental Psychology Research Group at the University of Vienna.
‘Nature’ in this study included a variety of green spaces, such as parks, woodlands or forests, and blue spaces, such as rivers, wetlands, beaches or canals. This is especially important for urban dwellers because it means the mental health benefits of nature can be made available to almost all of us, regardless of where we live or how much we earn.
“Especially for people on lower incomes, information about attractive natural recreation areas nearby and their accessibility via public transport plays an important role,” noted co-author Arne Arnberger, associate professor at the University of Natural Resources and Vienna Life Sciences. Professor Arnberger’s research expertise focuses on the recreational use of urban forests.
Interestingly, no nature-based mental health improvements were observed in people with higher incomes.
Unfortunately, unequal access to nature among lower socioeconomic groups can exacerbate health inequalities. For this reason, support must be provided so that everyone, especially those living in urban areas, can access green spaces and blue spaces.
“Therefore, they should also be easily accessible by public transport on weekends,” suggested Professor Arnberger.
This finding has profound implications for public health strategies, especially in addressing the socioeconomic mental health gap in large urban areas. From a public health perspective, it is therefore important to create greener neighborhoods, as well as natural recreation areas, but also to ensure that these spaces are accessible so that they can be used, especially by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.
Leonie Fian, Mathew P. White, Arne Arnberger, Thomas Thaler, Anja Heske and Sabine Pahl (2024). Visits to nature, but not residential greenery, are associated with reduced income-related inequalities in subjective well-being, Health and location 85:103175 | doi:10.1016/j.healthplace.2024.103175
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