Cities tend to have a bad reputation for being places that are poor for mental health and breed loneliness, however, a team of scientists has discovered that contact with nature in cities can dramatically reduce citizens’ feelings of isolation.
Loneliness is considered a major public health concern, which, after the experience we’ve had with the pandemic, shouldn’t come as a surprise. According to the research team, loneliness can raise a person’s risk of death by 45 percent; that’s more than air pollution, obesity, or even alcohol abuse.
To assess how the environment can affect feelings of loneliness, the study used real-time data collected via a smartphone app, which allows for the team to get immediate answers rather than relying on people’s memories of how they were feeling. More than 750 urban citizens worldwide participated in the study, providing 16,600 real-time assessments which included questions such as, “do you feel welcome among [the people around you]?” and “can you see trees right now?”
Since the participants were volunteers, the researchers acknowledge that their sample is not necessarily representative of wider populations, however, when the researchers accounted for age, ethnicity, education, and occupation, they found that contact with nature and feelings of social inclusion still had a statistically significant link to the decline of loneliness.
They found that feelings of overcrowding increased loneliness by an average of 39 percent, but if people were in a place where they saw trees or the sky, or heard birds, feelings of loneliness fell by 28 percent. Feelings of social inclusion also brought down loneliness by 21 percent, but when social inclusion was combined with contact with nature, the positive effect was increased by another 18 percent.
According to Michael Smythe, a member of the study team and an artist who works on social architecture and urban landscapes, the results clearly show that “environmental health and public health are one and the same.”
Source study: Scientific Reports—Lonely in a crowd: investigating the association between overcrowding and loneliness using smartphone technologies