- Seeing and hearing birds can improve well-being.
- Bird exposure is effective for those suffering with depression, or without.
- They can bring longer lasting psychological, intellectual, and social well-being.
“Can you see or hear birds right now?”
According to the latest research, many people are lucky to hear or see birds many times a day. They either ensure they take regular respite in nature, go for a walk, sit on a bench outside their home, or engage in outdoor activities. Alternatively, they may work or live in a quiet place, surrounded by greenery, where the sound of singing birds spills through their open windows. For others, seeing and hearing birds is rare, as they live in a busy town surrounded by man-made construction and the insistent sound of traffic. The question is, how does exposure to birds impact everyone’s well-being?
Reading about this research brought me back 30 years when I was going through difficult times as an adolescent. My mum was lying sick in a hospital for months. Worried about her, I found it difficult to sleep, eat and study. I didn’t have time for friends or anything that a typical teen tends to do. Instead, I took on household duties and took full responsibility for myself. My life revolved around going to school, visiting my mum, doing homework, preparing for my exams, and collapsing in bed exhausted and worried about the days ahead.
To give me a break, my aunt whisked me away into a small cabin in a forest for a week. She encouraged me to connect with nature and gather the strength to keep going. I thought it was a bad idea, as my mum needed me. I doubted that a week away from home would make much of a difference to my mental health, but I was wrong, and the birds had a lot to do with the answer.
Whenever I woke up too early and could not get back to sleep, I went out into the forest and listened to the birds instead of ruminating. I could not believe how many of them I heard. They all sang different songs with different pitches and volumes. Some were friendly, others aggressive. Some seemed to converse with each other, and others sang lone serenades.
I saw their colourful feathers flapping in the wind. I observed their nimbleness swooping into the sky. I saw them feeding their young ones and sitting on a branch, enjoying each other’s company. I watched flocks of birds flying in elaborate ever-shifting shapes, and while all of this was happening, I was not thinking of anything else but what was before me. It was a state of total mindfulness that helped me temporarily forget about my troubles.
That week away gave me the respite I needed to find the strength to keep going. I came home with a different perspective, rested, and began to experience fewer symptoms of depression. That week away became a catalyst for change in my life. After I got home, I contacted my family members and asked them to help me, as I couldn’t keep the household going by myself. I also arranged to see my head teacher and told her that my mum was in the hospital and asked for grace with my homework when required. That week, birds came to the rescue when I needed them most.
A recent study showed similar results. A total of 26,856 pieces of ecological data were collected from 1292 participants who were asked, “Can you see or hear birds right now?” The study found that hearing birds improved their momentary self-reported well-being, regardless if they experienced symptoms of depression or not. Even though temporary well-being seems at first glance insignificant, it provides significant lasting changes, as can be explained by the Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions.
Even though temporary changes in people’s emotional states are fleeting, the impact of experiencing them and their accumulative effect has lasting effects. Experiencing positive emotions builds psychological, intellectual, and social resources. It helps us undo the negative effect of negative emotions and reduce worry. This is possibly why the one week of exposure to birds under challenging times gave me so much strength to keep going and a range of ideas on how to do it.
January is often claimed to be the gloomiest month of the year. Why not try some “bird therapy” this month and search for places around you where you can see or hear the birds? It is free and easily accessible from any place. If going outside doesn’t work, try to find bird sounds online, close your eyes, and bathe in the sound of nature. Let the birds improve your well-being today.
Hammoud, R., Tognin, S. (...), & Mecheli, A. (2022). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Scientific Reports, 12, 17589. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20207-6