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Study shows how your own backyard may boost your well-being

Anthony Thomas

A few months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020, staff at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology noticed participation in all of its programs was skyrocketing.

People were signing up for bird watching, a bird identification app, a citizen science project, and more.

"Every program was just growing at a rate we hadn't seen before," said Tina Phillips, assistant director of the lab's Center for Engagement in Science and Nature.

At that point in the pandemic, lockdowns were in place and people were stuck at home looking for ways to occupy their time. Phillips and her staff started wondering about the effect of all this engagement with the natural world.

How, if at all, did this affect people's well-being?

To find answers, they launched a study involving ornithology project participants and members of the public who answered a lengthy survey about their level of exposure to nature.

In all 3,200 U.S. residents were surveyed in October 2020. Researchers asked them to rate their levels of loneliness, repetitive negative thoughts, overall mental well-being, and how emotionally affected they were by the pandemic.

Next, the researchers compared those responses with the kind of nature engagement that the study participants experienced and how often they experienced it.

They divided this into three categories:

Nearby Nature: Activities closer to home, such as gardening, taking a walk, observing nature through a window, and birdwatching.

Nature Media: Indirect exposure through reading, nature documentaries and wildlife cameras.

Nature Excursions: More intense experiences involving planning and travel, such as fishing trips, hunting, backpacking and kayaking.

The study, published in the journal "People and Nature," found that with the exception of loneliness, all measures of well-being were better for the Nearby Nature group compared to the Nature Media and Nature Excursions groups.

"That was really surprising," Phillips said, "because we went in thinking all types of nature engagement, no matter what, is going to show this positive association with well-being, and that's not what we found."

Not only did the self-reported mental health of the people who did more hiking, excursions, and media consumption of nature content not improve, they reported lower levels of well-being.

But Phillips cautioned against jumping to conclusions about these findings, as correlation is not the same as causation. There is no proof from these data that visiting a wilderness area or going backpacking actually causes more loneliness or decreased mental well-being.

""It could be the reverse," she explained. "People who have, perhaps, worse well-being might seek out those places."

Phillips' main takeaway from the study is that people don't have to spend a lot of money or travel to some far-flung location to reap the benefits of nature. They can get that by gardening or watching birds flock to a backyard feeder for 10 or 15 minutes.

The study also reaffirms the need for natural spaces in urban communities where people can find peace and serenity.

"It doesn't have to be Central Park scale," Phillips said. "But it has to be something where people feel safe and where people can go to get a little respite from their daily lives."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.