The Big Happiness Interview: Why birdwatching will make you happier

‘Birds have the ability to heal our lives and make you feel happier,’ says therapist and best-selling author Tammah Watts.

‘If you sit outside and watch the birds for a while, it will naturally lift your mood and you will relax. There are a bevy of scientific studies that now show the act of watching birds creates an active connectedness to nature, which makes you healthier as well as happier.’

Tammah walks the talk, too.

After suffering a neurological injury during a routine surgical procedure, Tammah was unable to return to the work she loved.

Her background as a marriage and family therapist helped her navigate her own struggles with her mental and physical health – and find a way to heal through creating a practice of birdwatching.

We chat to Tammah to hear more about how looking up can make you happier…

Why does bird watching make you happier?

Birds are accessible. They are around us all the time. Wherever you are, there will be birds and it doesn’t take long to see one. They are flying and living their lives in freedom which can be a very symbolic. They also sing.

Research has found that birdsong does cause us to have a sense of calm and ease and lowers stress levels. Birds have a way of connecting us back to being on the land, and natural spaces, to a place we know at our cellular level benefits us. Birds can serve as the gateway back to a connection with nature, which all the studies show makes us happy and healthy.

How does birdwatching make us healthy?

Studies show that spending time outdoors in nature for up to two hours, watching birds – regardless of whether you can identify them or not – is restorative and healing.

While the benefits of spending time in nature have been known throughout time and civilisations, concerted efforts to quantify them is growing given the drastic increase in health-related complications all over the world.

Physicians worldwide are rallying for nature to be an integrated component of health and healthcare systems – like Park Rx America in the United States, Nature Prescriptions in Scotland, which is endorsed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Healthy By Nature in Canada. They prescribe written prescriptions for patients to spend time outdoors and track the reduction of chronic illness, risk factors, and the significant health improvements in their patients’ lives.

How has bird watching help you become happier?

The practice of birdwatching helped me with my struggles from years of debilitating pain – following a surgical procedure and subsequent depression that had left me in secret despair and feeling hopeless for a cure.

In my darkest of hours, the connection I formed with a little yellow bird just outside my kitchen window made me feel lighter, happier. I often reflect on how connecting with birds has helped me to transcend my depression, anxiety, and grief – and I cannot imagine living without them in my life.

It started the day I saw a bright yellow bird outside my kitchen window. And at the time, I didn’t know what type of bird it was. Now I know it was a yellow warbler. But at the time, it felt like this magical gift. It really cast sunshine all over my soul. That’s the only way I can describe it. It opened up this new way of seeing life. I kept looking for it every time I went to the kitchen.

I started to notice the other birds. I began to notice the doves and the finches and the crows and the hawk. I began to see the residents of the garden and the visiting birds – and I started getting curious about what other birds I could see. I was couch-bound, but this created a new interest for me. I started spending more time outdoors, built up my stamina gradually and eventually joined a birdwatching group.

Being part of a community helped my mental health enormously. Being part of a community is at the very essence of belonging. There are all kinds of birdwatching and conservation and environmental groups that you can join. Belonging to a group will help you to feel more connected, and we know that this boosts your sense of well-being and reduces your stress.

If you’re new to birdwatching where do you start?

Birdwatching is a practice and therefore needs to be done regularly – just like learning to play an instrument, a new sport, or learning to speak a language.

There is truly no wrong or right way, which is liberating in and of itself. But you can start by acknowledging the birds you hear all around you, far, far in the distance, midrange away on buildings and lawns, in gardens, and nearest you.

With curiosity, ask: How many birds are there far away, at a mid-distance, and near? What are they doing and why? What piques your curiosity?

You can also start a birdwatching journal. It’s a way of checking in with your emotions.

How do you get the maximum benefit ?

A study conducted by a collaborative team from the University of Exeter, the British Trust for Ornithology, and the University of Queensland, suggests that merely the act of observing birds and nature can reduce levels of stress. They learned that it did not matter what species of birds one watched. Rather, the quantity and the time of day were most vital to reported increased well-being and reduced levels of stress. The more birds observed, as well as doing so in the afternoon, yielded the best results.

So start today. What are you waiting for?

A birdwatcher’s guide to happiness by Tammah Watts

1. Grant yourself the gift of communion with the dawn chorus. Dedicate your first precious moments upon awakening, before you rise, to reflection and intention. Try to begin even before your eyes open and listen to the birds’ songs as they float along the still-early morning air, just before sunrise. What are you grateful for? Just as the birds alert you to their presence at the start of their day, the act of giving voice to your gratitude while immersing yourself in the call and song of the birds will create a positive mindset for the start of your day as well.

2. Sit comfortably and watch for birds. Have no agenda other than to spend some time with the birds. Remember, start slowly and gradually increase your time.

3. Watch a bird feeder and/or water feature. Attracting the birds to spend additional time where you can view them on a regular basis can help to improve your mood.

4. Journal your thoughts while sitting and observing the birds. There is no right or wrong way to do this, and it is completely at your discretion. What are you feeling? What are you not feeling?

5. Sketch a bird that you take notice of the most. Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact, a rough sketch is all you really need. The act of drawing your chosen bird is another way for you to connect with them and nature. It is relaxing and enjoyable.

Keep Looking Up: Your Guide to the Powerful Healing of Birdwatching (Hay House, £12.99) is out now

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