Just seeing or hearing birds may spark an improvement in mental well-being that can last up to eight hours, British researchers report.
An analysis of data from nearly 1,300 volunteers who agreed to respond multiple times a day to a specialized app that checked on exposures to birds and on mental well-being revealed that people’s moods improved more when they encountered a bird than when they happened upon another aspect of the natural world, such as trees.
That improvement in well-being was seen even in people with a diagnosis of depression, according to the study published Thursday in Scientific Reports.
“Our main finding is that there is a time-lasting association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental well-being,” said the study’s lead author, Ryan Hammoud, a PhD candidate and a research assistant at the institute of psychiatry and psychology and neuroscience at King’s College London.
The fact that the positive link between birds and improved mental well-being was also evident in people with a diagnosis of depression, “highlights the importance of our connection with the natural world for our mental health,” Hammoud said in an email.
It’s not yet known how seeing and hearing birds could improve mental well-being, but there are several possible explanations, among them, stress reduction and decreased mental fatigue, Hammoud said.
To explore whether seeing and/or hearing birds might improve mental well-being, Hammoud and his colleagues recruited 1,292 people who were willing to download an app onto their phones and respond to the app three times a day for 14 days.
The app asked the volunteers if they had seen various natural phenomena:
- Can you see plants right now?
- Can you see trees right now?
- Can you see or hear birds right now?
- Can you see sky right now?
- Can you see water right now?
- Does the air feel polluted right now?
After that volunteers were asked questions about their mental well-being. The researchers also collected information on existing diagnoses of mental health conditions.
When the data from the apps were analyzed, the researchers found that hearing or seeing birds was associated with an improvement of 1.72 points on a scale of mental well-being.
Because they had also asked about other natural phenomena, such as trees, the researchers were able to show that the links between birds and mental well-being were not explained by co-occurring environmental factors such the presence of trees, plants, or water.
Psychologist Thea Gallagher was happy to see a study looking at “something that traditional research wouldn’t have thought about.”
“We all do things that make us feel better but there isn’t a controlled trial It’s nice to see research to back up the effect of birds.”
“In our modern world it’s so important to slow down,” said Gallagher of NYU Langone Health. “It’s nice to have something else to add to my list of coping strategies.”
The new study suggests that birding might be good for our mental health, Gallagher said.
While nature in general might improve mental well-being, birds may be especially effective because we can both see them and hear them, said Sheehan Fisher, a psychologist and an associate professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Focusing on birds and other aspects of the natural environment might help with mindfulness, Fisher said. “It can get us out of our ruminative thoughts and to a space where we can simply enjoy the moment,” he added. “And that’s especially true if you live in a city. Sometimes you get so caught up in the rush you don’t stop and smell the roses.”
Simply setting aside five minutes or so to appreciate the natural world around us can make us feel better, Fisher said. “It can give your brain a chance to recuperate and relax and be more mindful of nature,” he added. “Being purposeful about including that in your routine can be a part of self-care.”
“If you work from home you might want to position your desk near a window,” Fisher said. “When it’s warm you might want to eat lunch outside in a park. On the weekend you might take a little stroll.”