女大学生的沙龙

女大学生的沙龙: How a new generation of phone apps can help us connect with nature and improve our mental health

Our writer puts the theory to the test during her daily lockdown walks

aNNA HART
Anna Hart: 'The good news is that it’s fairly simple to up your levels of nature connectedness' Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

If there is one lockdown lesson I’m determined to carry into regular life, it is my renewed appreciation of nature. I always enjoyed the outdoors, and would duly admire a sunset or snowcapped peak. But during lockdown, walking the same stretch of Margate’s coastline every day, I grew into a true connoisseur of seaside scenery, marvelling at minutiae like never before.

On one sunset stroll, in the strictest days of the lockdown, I gazed at the light bouncing off the sea, beamed with delight at the birdsong emanating from a single bush, and stared, transfixed, at swathes of sand the wind had carved into swirly psychedelic patterns – and wondered if the Government had spiked the entire populace with LSD to keep us smiley and sedate as the crisis dragged on.

Fortunately I shook off that fleeting bout of pandemic conspiracy theorising pretty quickly, but I was left with the curious realisation that being stuck with the same identical scenery hadn’t reduced my pleasure in nature. On the contrary: paying closer attention to my everyday outdoor surroundings was proving more uplifting and restorative than an exotic holiday abroad.?

Phones aren't necessarily anxiety-inducing distractions, Hart found Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

It seems I was on to something. This month, the smartphone walking app Go Jauntly launches a new Nature Notes function, designed as a “nature prescription” by researchers at the University of Derby, after research indicated that the act of actively “noticing nature” brought clinically significant improvements in quality of life for people living with a mental health difficulty.

“One of the key findings is that nature connectedness is about moments – not minutes,” says Professor Miles Richardson, of the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group (NCRG). “Reaping the mental health benefits of the outdoors is unrelated to how much time we spend in nature; it’s about being tuned in and having a close relationship with nature.”

The NCRG is the first dedicated research centre established to examine the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world, and this free smartphone app is one of the first interventions proven to bring about sustained increases in nature connectedness, enhanced well-being, and changes in conservation behaviours.

“In 2001, there wasn’t a single research paper on ‘nature connectedness’, but research in this area has really accelerated in the past 10 years, in part due to the mental health crisis,” says Prof Richardson. “There is a large body of research showing that time in nature is good for you, but this generally focused on the physical aspects of fresh air and so on. Until recently, we didn’t look at how engaged people were with nature, or explore the mental health benefits of a close relationship with nature.”

Lockdown prompted Hart to think more about her relationship with nature Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

As Prof Richardson sees it, “nature connectedness” is a new paradigm for well-being. Sadly, the study – undertaken as part of a ?1.3?million Improving Wellbeing Through Urban Nature project – found that about 80 per cent of people reported that they rarely or never watched wildlife, smelled wild flowers or drew/photographed nature. Sixty-two per cent of people rarely or never listened to birdsong or took a moment to notice butterflies or bees. And just 6 per cent celebrate natural events, such as the longest day, the summer solstice last weekend.

I ask Prof Richardson how, exactly, I can gauge my levels of “nature connectedness”. I mean, is being outside enough? “We know that time spent in nature is important for our physical health, but for mental health, it’s about feeling an emotional attachment to it, and really engaging with it.”?

I suspect that without my recent lockdown experience, I would have found it harder to grasp this new – and academically accepted – measurable concept of “nature connectedness”. But even when our physical parameters closed in, more than we ever could have imagined possible, our capacity for pleasure in nature wasn’t constricted. All over the country, gardens were lavished with love and attention, parks were revered like sacred sites, and, for me, having the sea at the foot of my road felt like I’d won the lockdown lifestyle jackpot.

The good news is that it’s fairly simple to up your levels of nature connectedness. Users of the app have reported a 35 per cent increase in their levels of nature connectedness – with an associated reduction in depression and anxiety – after one month of sustained use. This study, the culmination of four years of research, provides the first controlled experimental evidence that noticing the good things about nature has significant clinical potential, as a well-being intervention, and also as a social prescription.??

The Nature Notes software in action Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

One now-dedicated trial user is Steph Meyer-Scott, a 31-year-old brand mentor who lives in New Barnet. When lockdown started, she downloaded Go Jauntly as a way to find interesting walks nearby, but she’s noticed a big difference in her anxiety levels since using the new Nature Notes function that was developed by Prof Richardson and his team.

“I’ve always had anxiety as an adult, and I’ve tried various things, such as meditation apps and gratitude journals,” she says. Gratitude journaling proved helpful, but, as Meyer-Scott puts it, “When I’m really feeling terrible, I found myself recording things like, ‘dinner was OK’, which was so mundane it made me feel worse, so I can be a bit of a cynic about things like this.”

But Nature Notes, which prompts users to record three things they notice in nature every day, functioned for Meyer-Scott like a “gratitude journal for nature”, and she found it much easier to stick to. “Being specifically prompted to look out for greenery, to seek out beauty in nature, really forces me to get out of my own head,” she says. “It’s very simple, but I find this a really easy method of mindfulness, and it’s made me more curious about nature. Now I want to know what that particular wild flower is, and I really appreciate the nature I have around me.” Meyer-Scott is adamant that the app has helped quell her anxiety during lockdown.?

As we start to emerge from lockdown, Hana Sutch, founder of Go Jauntly, and Prof Richardson are hopeful that this free app will function as a “nature prescription” for city dwellers, in particular. “Now more than ever, we’re all experiencing the real link between contact with nature and our mental health,” says Sutch. “The idea is that through technology like a user-friendly app, Nature Notes can help us all appreciate the positive moments, no matter how small, and ultimately improve our well-being”.?

As the study notes, mental illness is the largest cause of disability in the UK, contributing to 22.8 per cent of the total burden of disease. “At a time when mental health is being tested by the lockdown, but we still have access to nature, it could provide a helping hand for many people,” says Richardson.?

I’ve now been using the Nature Notes function of the Go Jauntly app for two weeks, and it’s rapidly become one of my most cherished daily rituals. Initially, I was concerned that the prompts would drag my attention to my phone and only make me more disengaged and anxious. But these gentle, visually appealing prompts from a chatty bot somehow never irked me, and knowing I had a friendly bot to respond to later encouraged me to look out for specific points of prettiness on my daily walk. After all, I didn’t want to let that bot down. It reminded me that my iPhone isn’t an evil anxiety-augmenter in itself; if we populate it with the right apps, it can be a valuable tool for enhancing our well-being and mental health. It’s also a gentle but firm reminder, as we return to a busier pace of life, to quite literally stop and smell the roses.

The notifications never irked Hart Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley
More apps for nature lovers

These will help you make the most of the great outdoors…

TreeTalk

Downloads of this online tree-mapping tool increased by 5,000 per cent during lockdown. It features the location and species of more than 700,000 trees in London.?

PlantSnap

Featuring some 600,000 species of plants around the world, this helps users identify plants from an uploaded photo.?

Seek

A slightly more child-friendly species identification app, which uses image recognition technology to identify plants and fungi, and encourages users to make observations and notes.

Chirp!

This app identifies birdsong and offers “human translations”. Particularly strong on British bird species. For automatic Shazam-style ID, try ChirpOMatic.?

Do you use phone apps to connect to nature? Share your experience in the comments section below
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