Author: Lily Johns
Edited by: Lihan Xie, Genesis Rodriguez, Kristina Lenn, and Sarah Kearns
The Restorative Effects of Nature
“People in all walks of life, in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad times, find in nature something that comforts and restores” (Kaplans, 1995, pg. 175).
University of Michigan faculty members Rachel Kaplan and the late Stephen Kaplan pioneered much of the research on the role of natural environments in benefitting well-being that exists today. With a multitude of publications, their research encompasses a variety of topics surrounding human cognition and the environment, notably the restorative effect that nature can have on the mind. According to the Kaplans, the restorative effect of nature is traced back to its role in preventing and ameliorating “directed attention fatigue”. Stephen Kaplan outlines the theory and importance of “directed attention”, which “plays a central role in achieving focus…and controls distraction.” This ‘directed attention’ is “susceptible to fatigue,” which often occurs due to a limited ability to direct their attention and leads to impulsivity, irritability, and distraction (Kaplan, 1995, pg. 17)
Spending time in nature, say the Kaplans, activates the “soft fascination” type of attention, which relieves your mind from a single subject and therefore helps to restore the directed attention fatigue. This has led the Kaplans to dub natural areas “restorative environments” for people from all walks of life (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, pg. 177-179).
“I come to the arboretum to breathe” (anonymous, 2019).
The Kaplans aren’t the only researchers who have observed a correlation between time spent in green spaces and well-being. Other related studies cite that spending time in nature has positive effects on the mental and physical health of individuals. For example, researchers measured the diastolic blood pressure, an indicator of stress level, of people exposed to either an urban or a natural setting and found that the subjects exposed to the natural environments responded with greater stress reduction than those exposed to the urban environment (Hartig et al., 2003). Additionally, psychophysiological responses tested 10, 20, and 30 minutes after walking in either an urban environment or a natural environment found that participants’ stress responses decreased (Gidlow et al., 2016). This suggests that mood improves after walking in both environments but “restorative experiences” and cognitive function were improved significantly more for those who walked in a natural environment.
Nature and Journaling: A Mental Health Rationale
“Nature brings out positive thoughts in me. Reminding myself of peace, harmony and happiness in life. And how to better cultivate them day-to-day” (AT, 2019)
During a summer internship at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, I was introduced to the research of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan by a colleague. I was particularly interested in their research around the restorative effects of green spaces and its applications to mental health treatment. As part of our internship at Matthaei, we were tasked with creating an individual project that would positively contribute to the community and landscape at the botanical gardens. For this project, I wanted to combine what I learned from the Kaplans’ research and a mental health technique that I find particularly effective; journaling.
Journaling is not just a form of self-expression, but also a technique used to manage both major and minor mental health issues. It has been shown to boost mood, relieve stress, and improve emotional regulation (Bailey and Bailey, 2018). Additionally, psychologist Stephen Lepore found that journaling “moderate[s] intrusive thoughts and depressive symptoms” (Lepore, 1997). Journaling can be viewed as both a preventative and a reactive measure in managing one’s mental health.
Eager to create a project that would encourage people to be creative and to pause and enjoy their experience in nature, I decided to install an outdoor journal in Nichols’ Arboretum. Further inspired by the Literati Bookstore public typewriter, the goal of the project was to engage the public through reflection and self-expression and to advocate for mental health.
To me, this seemed like the perfect way to incorporate the research of the Kaplans while also creating an outdoor installation that would enrich the park-goer’s experience.
In order to deduce which prompts would be the most effective, I tested several with my co-workers at the gardens to see which ones they responded to most. The top three and final choices are as follows:
- Share one of your favorite memories of the outdoors.
- What in nature inspires you?
- I come to the arboretum because…
On August 11th, 2019, the Outdoor Journal, which provides materials and a reserved area for submissions, was up and running. It was installed adjacent to the Poet’s Bench and contained these three prompts.
The Public Response
“I don’t want to do any nature journaling, but I will sit next to you, if you would like to” (anonymous, 2019)
Since its installation in August, the journal has collected about 170 individual entries. Their contents contain a diversity of themes, languages, and styles. I analyzed the entries based on the thematic content of the entry as well as the language or images used. Some common themes that I have noticed are:
- Nature/Arboretum Appreciation: 46%
This theme is by far the most popular among visitors who participated. These entries include everything from favorite memories of nature, their love of the arboretum and its natural landscape, to poems composed about a particular plant or tree that sparks their interest.
2. Nature Drawings: about 16%
Illustrations are also very popular. Whether it’s a drawing of a tree, a bench, a squirrel, or a flower, I have observed that visitors are sitting down to illustrate their surroundings.
3. Love/Family: about 11%
This theme is also common among those who journal in the Arb. They write love letters or letters of appreciation to those they care about or even document a meaningful experience that they have had with a person in their memory. These entries are often very profound and personal, and are more often anonymous.
4. Life Advice: about 6%
This category is rather broad. I have observed messages simply telling people to have a good day, others that give advice about happiness and living life boldly, and one addressed to me thanking me for the installation. These notes and writings all have one thing in common: they spread positive messages about life.
5. Religious Connections to Nature: about 3%
The last theme that I have noticed is the prevalence of religious messages that are detailed in some of the entries. From my analysis, the majority of the messages seem to be from a Christian perspective, however Judaism and Islam are also present.
Conclusions: The Power of Green Spaces and an Impetus for Future Research
“I love the arb. Heartbreak + depression – this place is an escape, a beautiful beautiful escape” (anonymous, 2019)
This outdoor journal has exceeded my expectations in many ways. Many of the responses encapsulate how much nature means to people, as well as how much people mean to each other. The immense response and the thoughtfulness of so many of the responses lead to my sincere hope that this project will add to the growing research that nature has an observable positive effect on mental and physical well-being. I also hope that outdoor journaling opportunities might be created elsewhere.
“The arb is my new beach” (anonymous, 2019)
In a world where our access to green spaces is slowly depleting, it is of our greatest interest to re-evaluate our relationship with nature and consider the vital importance of these green spaces to our individual and societal health and prosperity. I hope that the notes and sketches that people have eloquently written in the journal will help attest to how much we value nature and how extensive the benefits that it gives to us are, not only in terms of resources and recreation, but also in terms of spiritual and emotional meaning. As Rachel Kaplan once wrote, “A tree outside a window can be mind filling. It tells about the seasons and the weather, it serves as a setting for diverse animal life; it symbolizes the past and promises a future” (Kaplan, 1998, pg. 76).
Unfortunately, the journal installation is no longer in the arboretum due to the decision of the garden administration. However, this does not change the fact that this experiment showed the power and importance of green spaces to park-goers in the Ann-Arbor area. It remains a testament to how the intersection of research, green spaces, and a passion for mental health can result in positive public engagement.
Note: For more content of past entries, please follow the official Instagram page of the journal @notesfromthearb.
“Thanks for the good times and memories with family and friends. The arb will always endure – thank goodness!” (anonymous, 2019)
*All photos by Lily Johns
*All anonymous quotes taken from the outdoor journal survey.
Bailey, Kassee. “5 Powerful Health Benefits of Journaling.” Intermountainhealthcare.org, 15 Nov. 2018, intermountainhealthcare.org/blogs/topics/live-well/2018/07/5-powerful-health-benefits-of-journaling/.
Gidlow C. J., Jones M.V., Hurst G., Masterson D., Clark-Carter D., Tarvainen, M. P., Smith G., Nieuwenhuijsen M. (2016, November 23). Where to put your best foot forward: Psycho-physiological responses to walking in natural and urban environments. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494415300438.
Hartig T., Evan G.W., Jamner L.D., Davis D. S., Garling T. (2003, May 7). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494402001093#BIB13.
Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective. Retrieved from http://willsull.net/resources/270-Readings/ExpNature1to5.pdf
Kaplan S., (2004, May 20). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0272494495900012.
Lepore, S J. “Expressive Writing Moderates the Relation between Intrusive Thoughts and Depressive Symptoms.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 1997, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9364758?dopt=Abstract.
Lily Johns is a second-year undergraduate studying public health, with an interest in population mental health. In her free time, she enjoys gardening, reading fantasy novels, and flower photography. She is also an avid bananagrams player. You can connect with her on Linkedin.