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Birdwatching is good for your mental health


Three girls birdwatching

Want to improve your mental health and wellbeing, one answer might be right outside your window: birdwatching.

A new study from North Carolina State University has found that people who spend time in nature report better wellbeing and lower psychological distress than those who don’t. Birdwatching in particular scored the best, with higher gains in subjective wellbeing and greater reductions in distress when compared to more typical exposures to nature, such as a walk in a park.

“There has been a lot of research about wellbeing coming out through the pandemic that suggests adolescents and college-aged kids are struggling the most,” says Nils Peterson, corresponding author of the study and a professor of forestry and environmental resources at the university. “Bird watching is among the most ubiquitous ways human beings interact with wildlife globally, and college campuses provide a pocket where there’s access to that activity even in more urban settings.”

To quantitatively measure subjective wellbeing, researchers asked participants to assign a rating of zero through five to statements about wellbeing, depending on how often they have felt that way in the previous two weeks. For example, given the prompt “I have felt calm and relaxed”, a participant would mark a zero for “at no time” or a five for “all of the time”. Researchers calculated a raw wellbeing score by adding the five responses, with zero being the worst possible and 25 the best.

Researchers split the participants into three groups: a control group, a group assigned five nature walks and a group assigned five 30-minute birdwatching sessions. While all three groups improved their scores, the birdwatching group started lower and ended higher than the other two. Using another questionnaire designed to measure psychological distress, researchers also found those who engaged with nature performed better than the control, with participants in both birdwatching and nature walks showing declines in distress.

This study differed from some previous research, Peterson says, in that it compared the effects of birdwatching and nature engagement to a control group rather than a group experiencing more actively negative circumstances. “One of the studies we reviewed in our paper compared people who listen to birds to people who listened to the sounds of traffic, and that’s not really a neutral comparison,” he notes. “We had a neutral control where we just left people alone and compared that to something positive.”

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