Two hours a week getting back to nature can make you happier after grim year


You can set your Zoom or FaceTime background to anywhere you like, but it doesn’t make any difference – you’re still in the same place, speaking into the same microphone, staring at the same pane of glass.

You’re having to create a room where you and your loved ones can be together, and while there’s a certain joy to discovering new ways of interacting, it’s hard work too.

Studies have even shown that a bad connection changes the way we actually feel about the other person.

A German study from 2014 found that even a lag of 1.4 seconds makes us perceive that the other person either isn’t paying attention or doesn’t like us.

The delays, lags, freezes, jumpy visuals and jittery pixelations of connecting online aren’t how we’re meant to experience the world. And it appears that this disconnect is doing weird things to our brains.



Plant, notebook, cup of coffee and eyeglasses on a desk
Plants don’t just look pretty, they have health benefits too

Have you ever heard of that Harvard experiment where participants were asked to count how many times in a video a ball changes hands, and while they were counting a gorilla ran across the back
of the screen?

Half the people never even saw the gorilla. That’s how good our brains are at filtering, smoothing things over, making things fit a pattern we already know.

Put simply, when there’s a gap in the world, our minds do their best to fill it.

Furthermore, our minds do their best to predict what’s going to happen next, so that we can take our part in it, closing any gaps even further.

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So what happens when the gaps are something we never evolved to understand? What happens when they are frequent, disorganised and impossible to predict – like Zoom calls?

What happens when not only the words we’re saying but all the million tiny physical cues of what those things mean are broken up, distorted and glitchy?



Family on beach in winter, mother giving son piggyback
It can be tricky during lockdown but trips outside do a powe of good

Our brains try their best, but it’s exhausting as we have to make so much stuff up. It’s making us more stressed at an already stressful time. So what can we do about it?

Luckily, the answer might lie in something easy and free. Even better, in this weird time when so many of our former coping mechanisms are forbidden, it’s both legal, encouraged and simple.

Yes, going outside. It may be cold, grey, miserable and probably hasn’t stopped raining in weeks.

It’s bleak out there, and aren’t we all bored of trying to find a bright side in this
strange year?

And yet, the facts speak for themselves.

The mere presence of plants in our environment leads us to record less stress and less anxiety.

A Japanese study earlier this year proved this is true, even if it’s just a tiny plant kept on your desk.

The act of taking time away from the screen to care for the plant – to water it, tend to it – actually significantly lowered stress symptoms, both mentally and physically.

Just looking at plants can make us feel better. In 1984, a German researcher named Roger Ulrich discovered that hospital patients with a view of a tree got better faster than patients with a view of a brick wall.

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They needed fewer painkillers and had fewer complications.

Other studies have backed this up.

In 2002, volunteers looking at a natural scene (trees, movement, weather) were found to have a higher pain tolerance than volunteers looking at a blank screen.

Even a little bit of nature has remarkable effects.

And if such great things can be achieved merely by looking at the natural world, what might happen if we immerse ourselves in it?

Well, last year, the University of Exeter found that people who spend at least 120 minutes a week “in nature” reported notably higher levels of happiness, good health and psychological wellbeing.

Just two hours a week of being outside made people of all demographics happier.

The same results were recorded in the old, the young, the sick, the healthy, women and men.

Being in the open makes us happier, healthier and even better at thinking.

Healthy adults report significant cognitive improvements after a walk outside and the same is true of adults with long-term mental health conditions.

Even people with serious ­depression found time spent outside helped both their cognition and
their mood.

People need nature. People need the real world – things that exist away from a computer screen. Things that are real and remind you that the world is bigger than you can imagine.

It’s been a strange, sad year. Grief, fear and uncertainty have been the themes of it all. It has been, at least for me, sometimes easier to stay indoors and be sad about everything that’s been lost.

And yet the world goes on. Things still grow, the clouds still move through the sky and the earth is still there, solid and damp and good.

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Grass pushes through pavement cracks. Things want to live, things want to grow.

So as the new year dawns, maybe it is time we put down our smartphones, pulled on our boots and big coats and got outside. Your mind and body will thank you.

  • Uplifting cookbook Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For) by Ella Risbridger is out on Dec 31 (£9.99, Bloomsbury)





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