Noticing Nearby Nature: An Underestimated Mental Health Strategy

Noticing Nearby Nature: An Underestimated Mental Health Strategy

This article was published in the 2018 winter/spring edition of Psychologica Magazine for the OAMHP (Ontario Association for Mental Health Professionals)

Garden Activity Signs logo

Stopping on the porch at the end of the day instead of rushing inside as usual, I looked out at leafy trees, lazy clouds and a glimpse of Vancouver’s North Shore mountains. My body inhaled deeply of its own accord… and I felt myself relax. Ahh, that feels good. Space to breathe, to just be in the moment. It was a long time coming. A bird twittered in the bushes to my left. I haven’t heard that in awhile, I thought. Too busy. Too many cares weighing me down, keeping my mind occupied and my eyes to the ground.

As a horticultural therapist, I have long been aware of the benefits of noticing nature. However, feeling exhausted a few years ago while supporting my ailing parents, I realized that I had forgotten this important practice. I set the intention to stop on the porch for a minute upon arriving home to look at the view. Caught up in my full schedule, though, it took me several days to honour this commitment to myself. When at last I remembered to do so, the relaxation response was so immediate and profound that it instantly became a pleasurable habit, a moment for me to just be and to allow fascination to take hold.

It turns out I’m not alone in delaying or neglecting nature engagement as a wellness strategy. “Therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs) — exercise, healthy eating, relationships, recreation, nature engagement, being of service, etc. — are underutilized despite considerable evidence of their effectiveness in both clinical and normal populations,” notes Dr. Roger Walsh, professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies, University of California at Irvine. Walsh (2011) suggested this may be due to the difficulty of keeping up with the growing body of research on each TLC, adding that healthcare practitioners are less likely to recommend TLCs that they’re not using in their own lives. 

Another reason for not recommending or using nature engagement therapeutically is that we tend to underestimate how much better we’ll feel when we spend time in nature, as research from Trent University has shown:

"We found that although outdoor walks in nearby nature made participants much happier than indoor walks did, participants made affective forecasting errors, such that they systematically underestimated nature’s hedonic benefit…
To the extent that affective forecasts determine choices, our findings suggest that people fail to maximize their time in nearby nature and thus miss opportunities to increase their happiness and relatedness to nature." (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011)

Daily Nature Engagement Strategies

Knowing that we can easily underestimate the mood-elevating benefits of time in nature, one solution is to consciously choose small variations in our daily routine that bring us into greener surroundings. We can choose greener walking, cycling and driving routes, sit by a window with a view, and take our book or computer outside, weather permitting.

A recent meta-analysis by McMahan and Estes (2015) concluded that "Nature improves emotional well-being by increasing positive affect and, to a lesser extent, decreasing negative affect. ...Contact with nature provides benefit even in small doses. Incorporating brief ventures in nature into one’s daily routine may thus be one relatively easy and enjoyable way to achieve sustainable increase in subjective well-being."

Much of the research to date concerns spending time in nature. Holli-Anne Passmore and Mark Holder (2016) recently concluded that what we pay attention to in our environment impacts how we feel. Their study showed that prompting people to pay attention to nature in their urban environment resulted in significant benefits to well-being compared to two comparative conditions. A second group was asked to pay attention to their human-built environment, and a third (control) group to go about their business as usual. The participants in the nature group didn’t spend a significantly longer amount of time in nature than the other two groups. And those individuals who started out feeling more connected to nature didn’t have significant improvements over their counterparts who started out feeling less connected to nature.

This research is unique in that it took place over two weeks, rather than focusing on immediate after-effects of nature exposure. The researchers invited the study participants to merely notice and attend to the nature they encountered every day over the two-week period and how the natural or human-built objects/scenes (depending on random assignment) made them feel. They were also invited to take a photo of any specific object or scene that “evoked a strong emotion in them” and provide a brief written description of the emotions that were evoked.

The nature group experienced the greatest mental and social health benefits.

"Post-intervention levels of net-positive affect, elevating experiences, a general sense of connectedness (to other people, to nature, and to life as a whole), and prosocial orientation were significantly higher in the nature group compared to the human-built and control groups."

The take away message from this research is that paying attention to nearby nature in our daily lives can improve our mental health. We don’t have to travel to nature to enjoy the benefits, nor do we have to feel connected to nature. Simply paying attention to nearby nature provides mental health benefits.

Get my free nature self-care poster

Person-Centred Nature Prescriptions

The available variety of nature-related activities allows for a person-centred approach to prescribing for your clients. If you were a new horticultural therapy client of mine, I’d ask you what kind of nature experiences you’ve enjoyed in the past, especially activities that can be easily added to your regular routine. Stepping outside to greet the day with a cup of tea in hand? Strolling through a park or by a lake on your way somewhere? Gardening? Watching birds at a feeder outside your kitchen window while you wash the dishes?

What activity tugs at you with even a modicum of pleasurable anticipation? Might you want to set an intention to do that activity? In my own example above, I was specific about a location (my porch), activity (looking at the view) and how it fits into my regular routine (as I arrive home). These details allowed me to slip into doing the activity and feel successful at carrying out my intention.

Dr. Conrad Sichler, Ontario family physician and psychotherapist prescribes nature experiences  to lessen stress and depression and the Ontario College of Family Physicians is offering an educational webinar to provide evidence-based training for doctors and other healthcare practitioners. Eva Selhub and Alan Logan offer case studies and more ideas for prescribing nature activities to your clients in their book Your Brain on Nature (2012). 

Gardening is an accessible choice for many people who enjoy using their hands to actively nurture plant life. A meta-analysis of gardening’s mental health benefits pointed to reduced depression and anxiety, and improvement in life satisfaction, quality of life and sense of community (Soga, Gaston, & Yamaura, 2017).

As a horticultural therapist, I realized that many of my clients in supportive care settings would rarely engage their senses in the garden without someone there to show them what to do, so I designed a set of twelve Garden Activity Signs as invitations to connect with nature.

The smallest of the signs are 'plant tags'; essentially a plastic card that can be attached to a plant or carried around as a reminder to engage with nature in daily life.

Six Sensory plant tags invite an individual to nourish their senses, for instance ‘Look Closely’ or ‘Listen for Me.’ Individuals with an interest in gardening might benefit from one of the six Hands-On Activities, such as ‘Pick One or Two’ (flowers) or ‘Remove Seed Pods’ (which can be a soothingly meditative activity).

There are also larger attachable signs, and large stake signs, all of which are movable to offer new garden activities when desired.

Bringing these Garden Activity Signs to market is my way of combining my passion for promoting the benefits of nature with my entrepreneurial spirit.

'Listen for Me' garden activity sign'Touch Me' garden activity sign'Smell Me' garden activity sign'Look Closely' garden activity sign

Ontario Nature Programs

Attending to nature is simple, cost-effective, and accessible with many mental health benefits. If your client is ready for more nature activities, Ontario offers a rich variety of programs. You might recommend a client participate in a program or encourage them to volunteer their services. Following are a few initiatives, with links to more information.

Moodwalks promotes walking and hiking in nature for physical and mental health. It’s an Ontario-wide initiative by the Canadian Mental Health Association in partnership with Hike Ontario and Conservation Ontario. “Mood Walks provides training and support for community mental health agencies, social service organizations and other community partners to launch educational hiking programs, connect with local resources, find volunteers, and explore nearby trails and green spaces.”

Hike Ontario’s mission is “to encourage walking, hiking and trail development in Ontario,” with hiking clubs across the province.

In 2017, Ontario Parks encouraged people to take on David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge for the month of August. Will they do it again in 2018?

If you’re working with kids, youth and families, you’ll want to explore what Ontario’s Back to Nature Network has to offer.

To connect your clients with a place to garden and with other gardeners, consider suggesting a community garden plot or local garden club. Community garden networks is a good place to look for community gardens in your area.

Ontario has many therapeutic garden and nature programs that enable people to significantly improve their quality of life, whether they are immigrants, veterans, people in recovery or living in care homes, people with physical challenges or mental health issues, etc. Your clients may be suitable as a participant or a volunteer.

Volunteers are often needed to assist with the programming and/or to garden. An online search for ‘horticultural therapy’, ‘therapeutic horticulture’, or ‘garden program’ in your area will likely bring results. Alternatively, you can contact to ask about programs and members of the Canadian Horticultural Therapy Association near you.

A sampling of therapeutic horticulture programs in Ontario, which may have openings for volunteers:

Burlington: Royal Botanical Gardens

Guelph: Homewood Health Centre, St. Joseph’s Health Centre, and Guelph Enabling Garden

Mississauga: The Riverwood Conservancy. Programs support children, youth, adults and the elderly living with emotional, cognitive and/or physical challenges. 

Whitby: Wind Reach Farm, a centre for inclusion and personal achievement for people of all abilities

Fascination Takes Hold

Not only do I stop on the porch to take in the view when arriving home, I now do so before leaving as well. I've also made it a habit to look out my bedroom window onto the garden first thing in the morning. I do so until something (the pattern of a leaf, the slant of sunshine, a spider web) catches my attention and fascinates me.

I’ve been looking at these views for years now and there’s always something new to see. How is that possible?! Every day the light is different, the plants are at different stages of growth, the seasons progress and a songbird or squirrel just might pay a visit. It’s worth getting out of bed for.

As David Suzuki said, in his Nature Challenge,

"Nature isn’t a destination—it’s literally in your backyard. Green space is as close as your neighbourhood park or garden. Community gardens, trails, ravines and beaches are often a short diversion from your daily route. Birds, bees and other critters are always nearby. You just have to take time to watch and listen…. The good news for urban dwellers is that even small green spaces are beneficial if you relax and pay attention to nature when you’re there."

Where in your daily routine might you linger for a short while to notice nearby nature?

Get my free nature self-care poster


Shelagh Smith, HTR, MAEEC, is a registered horticultural therapist and the creator of Garden Activity Signs. She lives in Vancouver, BC. Click here to see the signs.


McMahan, EA, Estes, D (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 10(6), 507–519.

Nisbet, EK, Zelenski, JM (2011). Underestimating Nearby Nature. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1101–1106.

Passmore, HA, Holder, MD (2016). Noticing nature: Individual and social benefits of a two-week intervention. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1–10.

Selhub, EM, Logan, AC (2012). Your Brain on Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality. Wiley.

Soga, M, Gaston, KJ, Yamaura, Y (2017). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 92–99.

Walsh, R (2011). Lifestyle and mental health. American Psychologist, 66(7), 579.


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