Nature Documentaries and Your Mental Health

Photo via  flickr

Photo via flickr

A recent study, highlighted by the Times, conducted by Coventry University, Massey University, and Radboud University outlines how meditation shows no greater benefits to your mental health than exercising or watching TV - specifically nature documentaries.

This was concluded after more than 20 studies looking at mindfulness and its impact on compassion and empathy. Evidence suggests that watching a nature documentary had the same impact as meditation.

A previous study, aptly named The Real Happiness Project, a partnership between the BBC and the University of California, Berkeley with Professor Dacher Keltner, shows that nature documentaries had a sizable impact on the emotions of the viewers. Overall the study showed that viewers felt an increase in awe, wonder and a reduction in anxiety, nervousness and stress.

The BBC study highlighted something important, the value of increased engagement with the natural world. The true impact of nature documentaries allows us to see and experience nature the we may never see it, like the Snow Leopards that live in the mountains of Central Asia, or the weird Vampire Squid that lives in deepest darkest parts of the ocean.  

Through nature documentaries, we can be continually awed and inspired by the wonderful creatures and habitats in far off places, or right in our backyard. Watching a nature documentary allows us to be kids again, exploring the little habitats of our backyard, wondering where ants come from, how flowers bloom and how birds raise their young.

We get to be scientists in their earliest form, as pure naturalists. We don’t need any prerequisites - this is enjoyment for people of any background or age. I spent many evenings huddled around a laptop watching Planet Earth during my fieldwork, and the sequel was hotly talked about with my Master’s cohort the morning after an episode premiered, discussing which part we thought was the most interesting.

We were united not only in our love for wildlife, but our love for nature documentaries. We all share this world and are invested in its survival. Nature documentaries educate us on how we are specifically impacting species and habitats, along with how vital our choice to make changes for the environment is.

Documentaries makes the wilderness more accessible for those who are not able to travel to the far reaches, or even go to the aquarium or zoo. We get to see animals in their natural environment, learning about their behaviour right alongside the biologists studying them.

Whether watching a nature documentary really improves your mindfulness, and is as powerful as meditation, I think is beyond the point. It is the after effects, the changes in our attitudes to nature that is the most important.

This has been a challenging subject to study, but there have been some studies looking at the impact of nature documentaries on viewers’ environmental sensitivity.

One study looked at students' connection to insects after watching a documentary, in both verbal and non-verbal forms. It found that there was an increased connection emotionally through both forms, and that the knowledge about insects did not trump the emotional response.

Another study found that watching nature documentaries increased pro-environmental charity donations, and argued that an increased emotional connection with nature through watching documentaries only occurred in subjects that already had a strong interest in nature.

Regardless of what studies find, we have to make our own personal decision about how we interpret, and use nature documentaries. Nature documentaries increase our knowledge about habitats and animals, and can be solely educational. They can help us with our decisions informing us about how we live our lives, maybe by decreasing our plastic use after watching a documentary about turtles and seabirds starving from plastic ingestion.

We have the choice to inform ourselves, and nature documentaries have the power to connect us to the issues and beauty of nature around us. It may be debated whether or not they increase our empathy to the world around us, and be a form of mediation, but I believe nature documentaries are the greatest tools for change.

Sarina Clay-Smith