Environmentalism. Pffft. Honestly, who has the time, and the energy? And sustainability? Just another bandwagon for people to jump on, right?
We’ve all got busy lives, what with work, and family, and tax returns and remembering bin day. There’s enough to be stressed out about, without fussing about the planet, right? And frankly, it’s just so depressing and miserable.
In fact, evidence suggests precisely the opposite – that sustainable living, caring about the environment and even a bit of climate activism are actually good for wellbeing, both mentally and physically.
The benefits of nature
A number of eco-friendly activities involve spending time outdoors. Whether you’re picking up litter in a local park or maintaining a garden, you’re outside getting exercise. Even better, you’re doing so surrounded by nature. Time and again, research has shown that spending time in green spaces is good for mental health.
Irrespective of a person’s economic circumstances, their social background, or any other factor, those who have regular access to nature are at far lower risk of developing depression and anxiety than those who do not. People suffering from depression frequently experience a dramatic reduction in symptoms if they start spending more time in green environments, and it’s been shown that children with behavioural problems improve markedly following regular ‘green play’.
Little wonder, then, that Inger Andersen, the UN’s Director of Environmental Programmes, says “the full health benefits of the natural world are too extensive to list.”
The helper’s high
When people perform acts of altruism – whether it’s helping someone carry their shopping, or volunteering at a food bank – they get a feeling of wellbeing. This is caused by the brain releasing endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Greater health and increased longevity are associated with what is known as ‘the helper’s high’.
It stands to reason that taking steps to look after the environment – which, after all, is benefitting your community and the world at large – may trigger a similar effect.
But it’s not just about the helper’s high. The activities associated with simple, everyday eco-friendly actions have other incidental benefits to our wellbeing. One of the best ways to protect the environment, both on a local and global level, is to use the car less. Here’s an amazing fact: In the UK, almost 10 per cent of all car journeys are under half-a-mile. By ditching the motor and either walking or cycling, we’re also benefitting from increased physical activity, which has benefits for both physical and mental health.
A sense of purpose
Another key benefit of environmental activism is a renewed sense of purpose. According to online mental health publication Psychreg: “When people aren’t trying to reach new goals, they lack direction. It creates an untethered feeling that exacerbates existing depressive episodes. But activism presents a unique chance for someone to pour their heart into a purpose. When people start working toward a greener future, everything they do can take on meaning.”
Simply by caring about what you buy, what you eat, how you get rid of waste, and your carbon footprint, you are imbuing your actions with a degree of importance and responsibility. This goes a long way to tackling the sense of low self-esteem, lethargy and pointlessness that can characterise so many mental health conditions. Furthermore, an increased sense of purpose improves cognitive function which, in turn, decreases the risk of dementia.
The social side
There’s more. People need social interaction – but lots of people may struggle to form social bonds if they’re introverted, or new to an area – or, indeed, if they’re socially anxious. We get it! But, being passionate about the local environment can help bring people together. Meeting like-minded people and forming a sustainably-minded community reduces isolation, which is a key contributor to poor mental health. The shared goal helps create and strengthen bonds, and gives people a focus and a mutual interest to discuss.
It's not all good – and it’s worth acknowledging one potential negative aspect. Over the last couple of decades, psychologists have reported a new phenomenon that is negatively affecting mental health: climate anxiety. A recent survey by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) found that 66% of young people have experienced anxiety about the climate crisis, but feel powerless and unable to make a difference.
This sense of powerlessness is key here. The point of anxiety is that it directs our attention to impending danger and gives us a shot of energy to take life-preserving action. But when the danger is as big and nebulous as climate change, it can feel like there’s no action to take and nowhere for that energy to go. Rather than channelling anxiety to fight back or get out of harm’s way, we spin internally.
However, by taking action, we can mitigate the effects of climate anxiety, and rather than feeling helpless and hopeless, feel that we are playing an active role in the solution.
Grace Maddrell, an eco-activist, wrote in The Indigo Press: “Many, many people – from Greta Thunberg to some of my own friends – report improved mental health since joining the climate movement. I personally definitely had a point where being part of this felt like I was actually doing something meaningful for the first time in my life. Like maybe I actually had a purpose. There were times when I felt unstoppable, times when I felt so powerful as a part of this wave of change. The positive impacts of activism on mental health shouldn’t be downplayed.”
So there it is. Whether we’re taking care to recycle or reuse our goods, changing the way we shop and eat, thinking about the way we travel - or event indulging in a little bit of environmental activism - taking steps to look after our environment is good for our physical and mental health. Going green helps prevent us from feeling blue. It has a very strong link to our personal wellbeing.
But where do we get started? What steps can we take to lead a more eco-aware lifestyle?
BuddyBoost Green is a workplace wellbeing initiative that helps people to learn about sustainable living in a fun and engaging way. Every day, for up to 26 days, people are shown bitesize, multi-media content, including a daily challenge, and are pointed towards further interesting resources. By taking part in BuddyBoost Green we see people’s mindset change and really connect with the world around them. Find out more about the programme here.