What can animals teach us about mental health?

By Dale Shaw

The results are in. There is absolutely no doubt that spending time in nature is good for you.

Study after study has found that interacting with the natural world in some way has a beneficial effect on a persons well-being. But you dont have to venture out into some far-flung wilderness to experience the benefits. Green and blue spaces close to you, whether an urban park or a local canal will help to boost your mood. And even watching wildlife on television or online can make you feel better. Inspiring, slow-TV footage of animals traversing their natural habitat, such as BBC Earth's brand-new original series The Wild Place, offers audiences an opportunity to sit back and relax with nature.

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There’s a wonderful Japanese word, Shinrin-yoku, that literally means ‘forest bathing’.1 Rather than having a particular purpose while visiting a green space, the forest bather is encouraged to do nothing other than submerge themselves in the wonders of the environment.

When people spend time in Japanese forests, their blood pressure falls, their heart rate calms..."

Alex SmalleyPhD researcher

“When people spend time in Japanese forests,” Alex Smalley from the University of Exeter explains, “their blood pressure falls, their heart rate calms, levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to drop.” But you don’t necessarily need an actual forest in order to forest bathe. Any area with trees, grass and plants, such as a park or a garden, will work just as well. It’s all about switching off from technology and slowing down from the rigours of life.


Research has shown that, as well as green spaces, blue ones can also play an important part in our wellness. A 2013 study revealed that coastal locations were where the study’s participants felt the happiest.2 Being by bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers and especially the ocean, represses negative thoughts and boosts positive ones.

Watching waves breaking on a beach or sunlight flickering through leaves in a forest, these soft processes allow the bits of our brains which deal with concentrating and focusing to relax and recover.”

Alex SmalleyPhD researcher

As Alex Smalley reflects, “Watching waves breaking on a beach or sunlight flickering through leaves in a forest, these soft processes allow the bits of our brains which deal with concentrating and focusing to relax and recover.” If you live in a town or city, then a regular visit to the seaside can help you reset and readjust, washing away worries and stress.


But it isn’t just the visual delights of nature that can have a positive effect on our wellbeing. The sounds of nature have also been shown to improve mood and reduce stress. A University of Surrey study3 has shown that birdsong in particular helped to refocus attention and provided a restorative effect. As Alex Smalley states: “Listening to songbirds, like blackbirds, robin, wren, here in the UK, could be really important.” But it’s not just the sound of birds that can help. A study by researchers from Carleton University, Colorado State University, and Michigan State University4 also identified other natural soundscapes such as falling rain and waves crashing on a beach as helping to soothe our anxious mental states.


But you don’t have to physically spend time in natural spaces to get the mental health benefits that animals and nature provide. Researchers at the University of Leeds found that watching videos of cute animals reduced anxiety levels and lowered blood pressure.5 The delightful Australian marsupial the quokka appeared to have the most significant effect on the participants. A separate study by University of Victoria neuroscientist Olav Krigolson found that our brains reward us when looking at a cute picture of an animal, as it helps to boost our mood and concentrate better.6 So watching all those adorable cat videos online is far from a waste of time!

And if there aren’t any cute animal videos on offer, no problem. Watching any sort of wildlife show can have a beneficial effect. A study by Professor Dacher Keltner, from the University of California, Berkeley, indicated that even briefly watching nature content on television or online can provoke feelings of awe and joy while also reducing stress and tiredness.7 This feeling of connection to nature has been especially important in recent times, where the pandemic has curtailed our closeness to others. As Alex Smalley states: “If you can’t get outside and visit nature, you can try to bring some of those elements inside. There are also lots of videos and soundscapes available online which can help you to immerse yourself in nature at home.” 

Any of BBC Earth’s new 'The Wild Place' videos, publishing every day this week, would be the perfect place to start.

Featured image © Oliver Neumann / EyeEm | Getty

1. Japanese forest bathing, 2. Coastal locations, 3. Birdsong, 4. Natural soundscapes, 5. Cute animals, 6. Mood boost, 7. Stress and tiredness


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