We all intrinsically think that nature must be good for our health and happiness. A recent analysis of a large-scale nature challenge scientifically shows how important feeling part of nature is to our physical and mental health

There are a growing number of studies and campaigns putting forward evidence that a connection with nature makes us healthier and happier people, something that few of us nature lovers would argue with.

And now a recent evaluation of the UK’s first month-long nature challenge, which took place last year and involved people "doing something wild" every day for 30 consecutive days, shows scientifically and statistically how significant it really is.

Intuitively we knew that nature was good for us as humans, but the results were beyond brilliant

At the time of the challenge participants were also asked to take part in a survey about their perceived connection to nature and feeling a part of it; how they interacted with nature, and how they felt about their health and happiness, before the challenge started, at the end of the challenge and two months after it had finished.

The analysis has been published in the journal PLOS One.

The study was conducted by the University of Derby and The Wildlife Trusts to try and measure the impact of last year’s "30 Days Wild" campaign, run by the charity.

“Intuitively we knew that nature was good for us as humans, but the results were beyond brilliant,” said Lucy McRobert, nature matters campaigns manager for The Wildlife Trusts.

The study showed that there was a scientifically significant increase in people’s health, happiness, connection to nature and active nature behaviours, such as feeding the birds and planting flowers for bees – not just throughout the challenge, but sustained for months after the challenge had been completed.

Impressively, says McRobert, the number of people reporting their health as "excellent" increased by 30% and this improvement in health being predicted by the increase in happiness, this relationship is mediated by the change in connection to nature. It adds to a growing body of evidence that shows definitively that we need nature for our health and wellbeing.

For example, children exposed to the natural world showed increases in self-esteem. They also felt it taught them how to take risks, unleashed their creativity and gave them a chance to exercise, play, and discover. In some cases nature can significantly improve the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), providing a calming influence and helping them concentrate.

And for people suffering from physical illness or mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, interacting with nature can help people control their symptoms or even recover, alongside conventional medication.

“Nature isn’t a miracle cure for diseases,” says McRobert, “But by interacting with it, spending time in it, experiencing it and appreciating it we can reap the benefits of feeling happier and healthier as a result.”

Healthy lifestyle

Dr Miles Richardson, head of psychology at the University of Derby, conducted the study and explains that the results are significant, both statistically and from an applied perspective. It was a large scale intervention, he says, with more than 18,500 people committing around 300,000 random acts of "wildness", framed not as a public health intervention, but rather a fun campaign to take part in.

“The design and evaluation took a proven approach in evaluations of such scale, it’s an important step.”

According to Dr Richardson there is already research evidence that exposure to nature can reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; improve vitality and mood; benefit issues of mental wellbeing such as anxiety; and restore attention capacity and mental fatigue. But more than that, feeling a part of nature has been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness, and lower cognitive anxiety.

“These correlations are of a similar magnitude to those found between wellbeing and other variables, such as marriage and education, whose relationships with wellbeing are well established.”

And, he adds, recent analysis found people with a stronger connection to nature experienced more life satisfaction, positive affect and vitality at levels associated with established predictors of satisfaction, such as personal income.

“There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle,” Dr Richardson told BBC Earth. The real challenge for the future is how we get more people involved, knowing what we do about the very real benefits of nature.

If we can help people to connect with nature, that’s not just good for them, its great news for nature

He explains that an understanding of the pathways and activities that can lead to an increased connection to nature is starting to emerge; where education programmes with creative activities lead to short-term increases, but knowledge-based activities do not.

The University of Derby has identified contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty as pathways that helped people to feel closer to nature. More scientific and knowledge-based activities were not found to help people connect with nature. They also found that activities that related to these pathways significantly increased the connection, compared with just walking in nature alone or walking in, and engaging with, urban environments.

“It’s early days though, and lots to understand about the best pathways for different people – it won’t be one approach fits all,” he told BBC Earth.

Good for nature, good for you

And it’s a reciprocal relationship because as important as nature has been shown for our health and happiness, our interactions with the natural world are just as important for protecting nature and the environment.

Ultimately we want to see everyone taking action to restore nature – for nature’s sake and for ours

“If we can help people to connect with nature, that’s not just good for them, its great news for nature,” said The Wildlife Trust’s Lucy McRobert. Because, she explains, the more people that care intrinsically for their local environment and value the positive impact it has on their own lives, the more they’ll want to protect it from destruction.

So The Wildlife Trusts would like to see nature high up on the political agenda and viewed in the same way as health, security and education, and for businesses and corporations to make meaningful changes that protect our natural resources. And for us as individuals they want us to care for, cherish and protect our environment and wild places.

“We hope that [these] results show how nature isn’t just a nice thing to have – although it has a huge value in itself – it’s fundamentally important for our health, wellbeing and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we treat the physically or mentally ill, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities.

“Ultimately we want to see everyone taking action to restore nature – for nature’s sake and for ours.”

This year there will be a guide to doing 30 Days Wild for care homes and the physically and mentally disabled, focusing on ideas for 30 Random Acts of Wildness that can be easily and safely carried out with this audience, engage them with nature and hopefully improve their quality of life.

So shouldn't we all be spending more time outside interacting with nature?

Jeremy Coles is a staff writer for BBC Earth. He is @jpcoles on Twitter.

Be the first to know about new BBC Earth articles and wildlife programmes by signing up for the BBC's new personalised email newsletter. You can also follow BBC Earth on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.