Despite their outward invitations of endless social potential and activities, densely packed urban environments often come with the hidden (and harmful) phenomenon of increased loneliness.
According to Dr. Vivek Murthy, former United States Surgeon General under President Obama, the global “loneliness epidemic” is an overlooked consequence of urban living that carries serious lifespan reduction risks.
“Look even deeper, and you’ll find loneliness is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, depression, anxiety, and dementia,” he told the Washington Post in 2017. “And if you look at the workplace, you’ll also find it’s associated with reductions in task performance. It limits creativity. It impairs other aspects of executive function, such as decision-making.”
While there are many ways to counter loneliness, such as redesigning urban architecture to help facilitate social interactions or making it easier for people to own pets, a new study also recommends adding nature into the mix.
The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, follows a review of assessments provided by more than 750 U.K. residents who volunteered to use a custom-built smartphone app for two weeks.
The participants were queried randomly three times a day during waking hours using a technique called an “ecological momentary assessment.” In addition to questions about overcrowding and perceived social inclusion, the volunteers were asked about their natural surroundings: “Can you see trees right now?”; “Can you see plants right now?”; “Can you see or hear birds right now?”; and “Can you see water right now?” Feelings of “momentary loneliness” were then ranked on a five-point scale.
According to the more than 16,600 assessments received, overcrowded environments increased feelings of loneliness by a staggering 38%, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, education level, or occupation. When people were able to interact with green spaces or hear birds or see the sky, however, perceived loneliness dropped by 28%. Social inclusivity, defined by the research team as feeling welcomed by a group or sharing similar values, also dropped loneliness by 21%.
“If loneliness is lessened by contact with nature, improving access to high-quality green and blue spaces (such as parks and rivers) in dense urban areas may help people feel less lonely,” the team writes.
These findings appear to correlate with previous research into the mental benefits of walking through natural areas, a phenomenon known as “forest bathing.” A 2020 study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that immersing yourself in the atmosphere of a forest decreases stress and promotes relaxation.
“Forest bathing is designed to invoke almost every sense: aromatherapy from the plants; the forest sounds of trees rustling, birds chirping, or water rushing; visual stimulation from the flora and fauna; and tactile sensations of the soft soil under your feet or the leaves in your hand,” writes Treehugger’s Maria Marabito. “Combined, these experiences work to deliver a stress-reducing therapy that improves physical health as well as psychological well-being. The forest air is cleaner than urban developments and the trees themselves contain phytoncides, antimicrobial organic compounds derived from plants known for a host of benefits, including boosting immune cells.”
While increased and interwoven sustainability in urban environments is often viewed as a key weapon in the fight against climate change, it’s clear that such measures will also be critical in improving our own well-being and curbing feelings of isolation.
As Johanna Gibbons, a landscape architect and member of the study research team, told the Guardian, cities are likely the only global habitat increasing at a rapid rate. “So we should be creating urban habitats where people can thrive,” she said. “Nature is a critical component of that because, I believe deep in our souls, there are really deep connections with natural forces.”
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