Trees and Greenery Brings Joy

A growing body of research indicates that exposure to natural environments can have significant benefits for mental and physical health compared to urban settings (1,2). For example, a recent Stanford study found that young adults who walked through campus parks for one hour were less anxious and performed better on a test of working memory than those who walked along busy streets (3). However, the precise physiological mechanisms underlying nature’s positive impacts remain unclear. It is not yet confirmed that nature itself is wholly responsible for the effects – they may also result from physical activity, sunlight exposure, or social interaction when outdoors (1).

A new study from VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam aimed to provide more insight by examining how viewing images of green spaces versus urban areas impacts the body’s stress response (4). The researchers monitored university students’ heart rates, which indicate activation of the sympathetic “fight or flight” and parasympathetic “rest and relax” nervous systems. Participants were shown photos of buildings and concrete environments, as well as mundane natural scenes like trees and pathways. After viewing the images, they completed increasingly difficult math problems designed to elicit a stressful reaction.

The results showed that viewing photos of green spaces after the math stressor activated the parasympathetic system, lowering heart rates. Urban images had no such calming effect. Interestingly, seeing green scenes beforehand did not reduce the stress response during the math test (4). As lead author Dr. Magdalena van den Berg explains, “Short durations of viewing green pictures may help people recover from stress.” Though the study used relatively boring nature photos, she notes that more immersive experiences of actual green spaces would likely amplify the effects (4).

In summary, this research provides initial evidence that even brief glimpses of nature scenery can facilitate recovery after acute stress. While looking at photos did not prevent the physiological stress reaction, it appeared to activate restorative parasympathetic processes afterward (4). So consider setting your screensaver to display trees or requesting a work cubicle with a green view outside. If possible, take a walk through an actual park or natural area for enhanced benefits. Even minor interactions with greenery may aid the body’s return to a healthy, balanced state after stress.

1. Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental Research, 166, 628-637.

2. van den Berg, M., Wendel-Vos, W., van Poppel, M., Kemper, H., van Mechelen, W., & Maas, J. (2015). Health benefits of green spaces in the living environment: A systematic review of epidemiological studies. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 14(4), 806-816.

3. Gamble, K. R., Howard, J. H., & Howard, D. V. (2014). Not just scenery: Viewing nature pictures improves executive attention in older adults. Experimental aging research, 40(5), 513–530.

4. van den Berg, M., Joye, Y., Koole, S., van den Berg, A., Wulp, N., & Hellgren, J. (2021). Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute Mental Stress. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(3), 967.