For many it’s probably not going to come as news that there’s pleasure to be taken from spending time watching the birds flitting around our gardens. It’s certainly an easy and direct way to connect with nature, particularly in our urban environments.
Could something be done to enhance the experience further? Miles Richardson from the Nature Connectedness Research Group believes so. They wanted to explore how a more rational nature experience could be turned into a more emotional experience. With emotions being a key part of helping form closer bonds with nature. Plenty of research clearly backs up the benefits that can be gained from spending time amongst nature, particularly when paying attention to and engaging with it.
"Emotions matter. They help change mindsets, are at the heart of relationships and are expertly targeted to fuel consumption – yet the rational mind can dismiss emotions as inferior to facts and figures."
Recently Miles got back in touch to tell us about one of his students research papers that had been released in Urban Ecosystems that delved deeper into the delights of watching birds, by introducing a twist that he termed ‘joy watching’.
It was back in 2021 the Alpkit Foundation linked in with Miles to assist with an easily 'Accessible research fund' that could help support Masters students with studies that looked to understand and highlight the benefits and encourage a love of nature. Often accessing research grants can be time consuming and complex, so this was a great way to support these more exploratory, proof of concept studies.
Through their exploratory study, it set out to test the effects of a brief, novel birdwatching task involving rating birds for feelings of joy. It compared simply counting (the count group) with those that directly rated their feelings of joy rather than counting (the joy group). Could paying more attention to feelings of joy enhance psychological benefits?
"To sum up, the research offers evidence for the psychological benefits of watching birds, and suggests that taking part in citizen science projects like the Big Garden Birdwatch can bring about enhanced wellbeing and connection to nature. However, greater improvements in anxiety are gained by paying attention to the positive emotions experienced while watching birds."
So despite some limitations to the study the results looked to suggest that indeed, by simply having more focussed attention on the feelings that are evoked it can bring greater improvements to well being.
Certainly a simple and interesting concept, one that Miles and his colleagues feel has potential to be incorporated into various community schemes.
"Moving beyond counting birds by rating them for the feelings of joy they evoke has been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety, showing potential for wellbeing interventions for self-management of mental well-being.
In the context of Green Social Prescribing and Nature Prescriptions, ‘Joy Watching’ is a simple activity that anyone can do at home, or any outside space where birds are present.
"Our research has shown consistently that noticing nature is a critical first step towards connecting to nature for improved wellbeing. Noticing our emotional responses to nature takes us further towards building a new relationship with it. We know that those who feel close to nature are more likely to take action to help it, so appreciating the joy of birds could lead to more planting for birds and insects, better feeder hygiene, and more eco-aware behaviour. So, next time you fill up your feeders, pause, watch, and – most importantly – enjoy the birds who come to feed."
Head over to find out more about the work of the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby.
Main image: Esme Stocker