Significant findings about how city living is affecting mental well-being in real time.
It’s no secret that roaming outdoors in beautiful countryside lifts our spirits and the beneficial impact of nature on our mental health is supported by scientific literature, as well as by countless poetic and literary writings down the ages.
However, mental illness is now one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. With its attendant problems of depression, anxiety and misuse of drugs making it a major contributor to the global burden of disease, a better understanding of how natural features in our surroundings affect mental health has become an urgent priority. The World Health Organization has also highlighted this need (WHO and UN-Habitat, 2010).
More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas and it’s estimated that by 2050, 66% of us will live in cities (UNESA, 2014). Existing research shows that people who live in urban environments are at higher risk of a range of mental-health issues (Peen, Schoevers, Beekman, & Dekker, 2010; Galea 2011; Lederbogen et al., 2011).
In February this year, some significant findings from an innovative research project were reported: a collaboration between academics at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, United Kingdom, landscape architects, and members of an arts foundation project (Bakolis, Hammoud, Smythe, Gibbons, Davidson, Tognin, & Mechelli, 2018). The team developed a smartphone-based tool, Urban Mind, to investigate how city living is affecting mental well-being in real time. It does this by measuring the user’s experience of urban or rural living in the moment, using a methodology known as ‘ecological momentary assessment,’ which involves repeated sampling of current experiences in real-time and real-world contexts (Shiffman, Stone, & Hufford, 2008).
Users of the Urban Mind app are prompted to answer questions about how they feel and about their surrounding environment as they go about their daily lives, so it’s not just a snapshot. The app incorporates photographic, statistical and audio data from its users in real time and since this is all in real-life environments, this creates a reliable geo-narrative account.
In the study, 108 individuals completed 3013 assessments over one week. When analyzing the statistics, the researchers adjusted for age, gender, occupational status and mental well-being score over the previous two weeks. Significant immediate and lagged associations with mental well-being were found for several natural features in the environment, including trees, the sky, and birdsong, indicating that the benefits of nature on mental well-being are time-lasting. In fact, a single exposure to trees can make a person feel good for up to 7 hours afterwards.
These positive associations between mental health and the natural environment were stronger in people with higher trait impulsivity, that’s a psychological measure of one’s tendency to behave with little forethought or consideration of the consequences (Mayhew & Powell, 2014). This measure may predict future risk of developing mental-health issues, including addictive disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), antisocial personality disorder and bipolar disorder. These findings suggest that the beneficial effects of nature may be especially evident in those individuals at greater risk of developing mental-health issues.
This study in investigative citizen science reveals potential implications for mental health on a global perspective and for informing urban planning and design. Perhaps this new method of collecting evidence about the interaction between mental health and our environment will help inform future investments and policies for designing more natural urban environments. We need to see trees and grass and to hear the birds singing when we leave our homes.
To take part in the research and help develop healthier cities internationally download the Urban Mind app.
Bakolis, I., Hammoud, R., Smythe, M., Gibbons, J., Davidson, N., Tognin, S., & Mechelli, A. (2018). Urban Mind: Using smartphone technologies to investigate the impact of nature on mental well-being in real time. BioScience, 68(2), 134–145. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix149
Galea, S. (2011). The urban brain: new directions in research exploring the relation between cities and mood-anxiety disorders. Depression and Anxiety, 28(10), 857–862. doi:10.1002/da.20868
Lederbogen, F., Kirsch, P., Haddad, L., Streit, F., Tost, H., Schuch, P., … Meyer-Lindenberg, A. (2011). City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans. Nature, 474(7352), 498–501. doi:10.1038/nature10190
Mayhew, M. J., & Powell, J. H. (2014). The development of a brief self-report questionnaire to measure “recent” rash impulsivity: A preliminary investigation of its validity and association with recent alcohol consumption. Addictive Behaviors, 39(11), 1597–1605. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.03.022
Peen, J., Schoevers, R. A., Beekman, A. T., & Dekker, J. (2010). The current status of urban-rural differences in psychiatric disorders. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 121(2), 84–93. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0447.2009.01438.x
Shiffman, S., Stone, A. A., & Hufford, M. R. (2008). Ecological momentary assessment. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 4(1), 1–32. doi:10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.3.022806.091415
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights. UNESA. (3 August 2017).
World Health Organization, [UN-Habitat] United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2010). Hidden Cities: Unmasking and Overcoming Health Inequities in Urban Settings. WHO, UN-Habitat. (3 August 2017)