Watching Nature Documentaries Lifts Our Moods And Combats Boredom, Study Finds

Beautiful, fascinating, and funny in equal parts, nature documentaries are great for lifting spirits. aDam Wildlife/Shutterstock.com

Few of us need much encouragement when it comes to bingeing nature documentaries, and new research has now added even more weight to the argument that these awe-inspiring programs are good for the soul.

Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, research has found watching high-quality nature programs can lift spirits, reduce negative emotions, and even help alleviate the kind of boredom associated with the lockdown. The study even goes a step further than conventional natural history filmmaking, showing that experiencing such content in virtual reality (VR) could have bigger benefits, making us feel better by increasing our connection to the natural world.

In March of this year, one-third of humanity was experiencing some form of lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, local lockdowns are starting up again as some regions experience a second spike in coronavirus cases. These lockdowns, while effective in reducing the rate of spread, have been associated with a host of mental and physical side effects, with many finding the isolation has taken a toll on their sense of wellbeing.

This new study looked at the effects of watching nature documentaries under laboratory conditions by first inducing a state of boredom in its participants by making them watch a video of someone describing their work at an office supply company (nice to see the cast of Love Island UK finding work at this difficult time). They then attempted to resuscitate their catatonic audience by showing soothing scenes of an underwater coral reef via three media: on TV, in a VR headset using 360-degree video, and in a VR headset using computer-generated interactive graphics.

All reef content was found to minimize negative feelings such as sadness, as well as significantly reduce boredom. However, it was only the interactive VR experience that led to an increase in positive feelings, with participants reporting they felt happier and a stronger connection to nature.

Who among us can resist the charms of a peacock spider dancing for his life?

“Our results show that simply watching nature on TV can help to lift people’s mood and combat boredom,” said lead research Nicky Yeo in a press release emailed to IFLScience. “With people around the world facing limited access to outdoor environments because of Covid-19 quarantines, this study suggests that nature programmes might offer an accessible way for populations to benefit from a ‘dose’ of digital nature.”

The researchers worked with the world-famous BBC Natural History Unit, who are no strangers to award-winning natural history filmmaking to create their experimental conditions. The study included several clips from the Blue Planet II series, including unseen 360-degree footage, and a brief foray into the archives of these natural history giants serves as anecdotal proof of their therapeutic potential. Don't believe us? Check out this love-struck swimming sloth, these dancing bears, or these leaping widowbirds and try telling us you don't feel better.

The chubby cheeks of the European hamster can bring cheer to even the gloomiest of days.

“We’re particularly excited by the additional benefits immersive experiences of nature might provide,” said Dr Mathew White, co-author of the study. “Virtual reality could help us to boost the wellbeing of people who can’t readily access the natural world, such as those in hospital or in long-term care. But it might also help to encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviors and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world.”

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