An existential moment with nature

A WALK in the park or a holiday in the wilderness gives people those 'existential moments' that make them happier, more confident and less stressed, according to a new report. It also improves their performance at work, writes David Nicholson-Lord.

One of the largest surveys of the effects of nature on psychological health has found that being able to look at woods and greenery may have 'powerful preventative and curative influences'. It says that hospitals should include nature areas, gardens and pastoral landscapes to enable patients to recover better.

The review - produced for English Nature, the Government's advisers on conservation, by Reading University and the Research Institute for the Care of the Elderly - examines nearly 250 studies, including experiments with cancer patients and prisoners as well as people walking in the park.

It suggests that contact with nature improves self-esteem, increases altruism and may be an important source of what the American psychologist Abraham Maslow called 'peak experiences' - the 'existential moments' that induce 'a heightened sense of being alive'.

'People regard such experiences as memorable or important. A jogger may tell of his unexpected encounter with a fox in the local park . . . or a tourist may relate with great animation yet thoughtfulness her experience with a sealion which emerged from the sea in front of her boat.' Seeing an oyster catcher close up for the first time converted one city dweller into a nature lover and lifetime birdwatcher.

Improvements in mood can result from the briefest exposure, one study found. The authors, Dr Christa Rhode and Dr Tony Kendle, suggest that these emotional benefits could result from providing many more smaller, dispersed nature areas in cities.

The authors speculate that the therapeutic effects of nature may be linked with a sense of freedom from social environments over which people have little control.

(Photograph omitted)