There's no shortage of research highlighting the benefits of spending time in the great outdoors. All manner of studies highlight things like how access to the outdoors is better for our vision and improves our mental health. While the reasons for this are thought to be many and varied, the effect is quantifiable – said to feel as good as getting a $10,000 raise or even feeling seven years younger.
But the amazing thing is it appears that our access to nature doesn't even have to be real for us to reap at least some of these benefits. A new study has found that just looking at still images of nature is enough 'natural' stimulus to lower our stress levels.
Researchers led by Vrije University Medical Centre in the Netherlands recruited 46 participants in an experiment designed to see how looking at images containing nature could settle a person's nerves. Participants outfitted with sensors to monitor their heart rate and stress levels had to complete mathematical problems on a computer, with the test set to function at both normal and stress-inducing levels. After this, they would view one of two series of pictures.
Both image sets depicted urban environments, but one showed environments containing greenery amongst buildings, while the other showed a more stark setting, devoid of any natural flora.
The findings, reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, suggest that keeping a few snapshots of greenery around your work desk might not be a bad idea. When participants viewed the natural images in the experiment, their stress levels lowered, thanks to the activation of their parasympathetic nervous system – which controls certain rest functions.
"Viewing green scenes may thus be particularly effective in supporting relaxation and recovery after experiencing a stressful period," the authors write, "and thereby could serve as an opportunity for micro-restorative experiences and a promising tool in preventing chronic stress and stress-related diseases."
Interestingly, the green stimulus appears to work as a recovery from stress, but the researchers found it can't act as a buffer. Looking at pictures of greenery before the stress-inducing test had no pre-calming effect on the participants.
The green images used in the experiment were intentionally kept as plain and drab as possible, so as not to distract the participants with their aesthetic or 'majestic' qualities. What this could mean is that any old pictures showing some aspects of nature or greenery could help to calm you down when you're feeling hot and bothered – a result that even the researchers weren't quite expecting.
''[S]hort durations of viewing green pictures may help people to recover from stress,'' lead researcher Magdalena van den Berg told Gretchen Reynolds at The New York Times. "[F]inding an effect with regard to such weak, even boring visual stimuli – no spectacular green views, no sound, no smells et cetera – is surprising.''
While the sample size in the study was not large and the results on their own should not be considered definitive, this is not the first study to show that viewing pictures of greenery can have a calming effect on people. Although the researchers acknowledge that looking at actual nature in the real world would probably have an even greater effect than a 2D image.
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia found that populating office environments with pot plants made staff happier and could boost productivity by as much as 15 percent. (Something to bear in mind if you work indoors and aren't seated by a window.)
And if pot plants aren't suitable for your place of work, at least you know now that you might be able to get by with just a couple of photos stuck up in your cubicle!