By Published: Nov. 18, 2020

CU Boulder researcher finds that connecting with people in nature eases loneliness, anxiety

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic led to increased social isolation in nations across the world, researchers were seeing an epidemic of loneliness in the United States and Europe.

In 2019, two in five Americans reported that they sometimes or always felt their social relationships are not meaningful, and one in five said they feel lonely or socially isolated, according to a report by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

In Europe, some 30 million people, or 7% of the continent’s population, reported “frequently feeling lonely,” according to a 2018 European Commission report.

And according to the most recent National College Health Assessment, 68.8% of students at the University of Colorado Boulder reported they were lonely, while 66.2% experienced overwhelming anxiety, and 2.6% contemplated suicide.

And COVID-19 is only worsening the problem.

There is a growing crisis that may be more dangerous than COVID itself, and that’s the mental-health consequences of the pandemic."

“I think there is a growing crisis that may be more dangerous than COVID itself, and that’s the mental-health consequences of the pandemic,” says Jill Litt, professor of environmental health at CU Boulder and an associated researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, also known as ISGlobal.

One solution to that problem, though, may be digging the dirt with other people and engaging in nature, generally, according to a paper published last year by Litt and colleagues in Current Environmental Health Reports.

Litt’s insights stem from ongoing research demonstrating that participating in a community garden can improve physical, emotional and cognitive health, to the extent that such activities can provide an effective non-pharmaceutical antidote to loneliness and anxiety.

Such activities are ripe for consideration as part of a broader concept, “nature-based social prescriptions,” which can offer health care providers with a valuable opportunity to help adults and children find ways to feel more socially connected and be part of their larger community and natural environment,” Litt and colleagues wrote in the paper.

Jill Litt Photograph

Jill Litt, an environmental studies professor, works at her urban garden prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “The developing practice represents a low-cost, creative intervention to strengthen social networks, reduce stress, and facilitate social connectedness among participants without requiring expensive gym memberships or special clothing to access a local park or natural area with friends, family or groups.”

“A nature-based approach can be powerful, affordable and accessible,” Litt says.

Litt and her PhD student, Ashby Sachs, together with colleagues in Denver Public Schools and the Children’s Hospital of Colorado are testing the concept among teenagers in Denver, funded by CU Boulder’s Renée Crown Wellness Institute, and hope to launch similar work for CU Boulder students called Nature Engagement and Students Together.

She recently learned that her grant, “Re-imagining Environments for Connection and Engagement: Testing Actions for Social Prescribing in Natural Spaces” or RECETAS was selected for funding by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research Program. Over the next five years, RECETAS—which means “prescription” in Spanish—will study how investments in nature-based solutions and green infrastructure can “improve health and mental well-being and reduce loneliness … even in times of health emergencies.”

The project “will use randomized controlled trials and other epidemiologic, anthropological and health economic methods to test socially and culturally innovative nature-based social prescribing in six cities in Europe, Latin America and Australia,” according to the proposal.

Litt is also in the process of preparing findings from a randomized controlled trial, funded by the American Cancer Society, studying how community gardening influences emotional and cognitive health. The data confirm Litt’s previous quantitative and qualitative studies.

Working in a community garden provides physical, cognitive and emotional health benefits through two key vectors, Litt says: Aesthetic appreciation—the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the garden environment—and relationships developed through participation.

“In order to get to long-term health change, the emotional piece crucial. People like the garden because it makes them feel good and they like to get their hands dirty,” she says. “Rarely do they do it for health, but in the garden context they felt relaxed. Stress and anxiety were going down and well-being was going up. We had addicts who said the only time they stopped (using) was in the garden.”

If you don’t take care of the broader social and economic structures that complicate the ways people move in the world, you’re going to have a lot of mental-health problems.”

Fascinated by the results, Litt has even published a feasibility study into whether some of the benefit might be related to the character of soil itself. Other researchers at CU Boulder have also explored this link.

“We don’t have enough data to say much yet, but the thought is maybe there is physiological basis to the mental health benefits of gardening—that is, breathing and digging in healthy soils may change the human gut microbiome, and consequently boost the immune system and emotional health,” she says.

The pharmaceutical approach that remains prevalent in the United States led Litt to seek funding in Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, where clinicians and other care providers have shown more interest in social prescribing, she says.

In the United States, “the emphasis is on treatment and the use of pharmaceutical interventions—‘Here is the prescription, take it, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll increase the dose,’” she says. “Only rarely does someone come in feeling lonely and the response is, ‘There might be some other things we can do to change that.’”

She hopes her research will help change that down the road, adding:

“If you don’t take care of the broader social and economic structures that complicate the ways people move in the world, you’re going to have a lot of mental-health problems.”