Does nature make us happy?

Photo by Mike Benna @mbenna

With Spring about to burst, it is worth taking a  moment to act on we know intuitively [and science has proven]

Time spent in nature – even urban parks – can make us happier and healthier.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness….

In some ways, I love the romance of this time of year. The warm colours of the leaves, cooler weather calling for cozy sweaters, excuses to get a roaring fire burning in the grate, cold hands wrapped around steaming mugs of hot chocolate…

Less romantic are the grey, damp and dreary days. Even without realizing it, we’re going out less often, except when we have to go to work, pick up the kids or walk the dog.  Or is this just me?

Shorter days and less sunlight can lower our mood and make us less tolerant to stress (even if we don’t suffer from full-on seasonal affective disorder).  

It’s official: parks make us happy!

There have been many, many scientific studies showing that spending time in nature is de-stressing and makes us happier and less prone to disease. The good news for the 83% of us in the UK who live in urban environments is that spending time in our local park is as effective as travelling out to a rural woodland, a recent study suggests.

There have been many, many scientific studies showing that spending time in nature is de-stressing and makes us happier and less prone to disease. The good news for the 83% of us in the UK who live in urban environments is that spending time in our local park is as effective as travelling out to a rural woodland, a recent study suggests.

Town is as good as country

Photo by Martin Moreno  @memoreno

A research paper published earlier this year from a team from University of Exeter Medical School showed that urban parks are as powerful as forests for reducing stress. The scientists took around 150 participants in total and stressed them a bit by giving them a series of very mild electric shocks.

The researchers then showed one group of people a virtual reality forest, another group an urban park, each complete with natural smells and birdsong for around 2 hours, and a third group were shown a virtual urban environment with traffic noise and smells.

Not surprisingly, the people in the virtual forest and park environments showed much lower stress levels than those in the virtual urban environment; the big surprise was that urban parks were as effective as forests at reducing stress! Yay for those of us living in cities and towns!

Nature also makes us healthier

“Off your phones. We’re going out!”

I live in a city and like many people, much of my life in the colder months is spent traveling to work/school by public transport/car; at weekends we might wander around our local highstreet, watch TV or a movie.

It is so easy to spend hardly any ‘quality time’ in nature when it’s grey and dreary.

But yesterday, struck by the beauty of the fresh spring green buds bursting through, I decided to take the kids out for a walk in our local park.  Just do it, I thought. It was easy (the teenager needed a bit of cajoling, mind) and it was fun!

How much time is enough?

But I’m busy, I hear you say. Yes, I get it. So how much time is enough?

Obviously this will vary from person to person, but the scientific studies generally indicate that that half an hour to an hour (ideally more), two to three times a week is great.

I guess, just get out there, try it and find out what works for you.

Make a commitment…

Surely the best way to get yourself out and about is to schedule it in your diary or arrange to meet friends. I think Parkrun is genius – not only are you outside in a park for a very walkable/runable 5km, but with other likeminded souls for company and support.

Photo by asoggetti @asoggetti Pian delle Betulle, Italy
Not your average parkrun

One last thing: in the scientific studies, the participants knew they were in an experiment and were paying attention to their surroundings – taking time to notice the loveliness of the sights and sounds around them.

Paying attention to our surroundings, appreciating, feeling grateful – being in the moment – is vital to getting the most out of any time spent in our natural world.


Further Reading

  1. Summary of University of East Anglia analysis of data from multiple countries. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/07/180706102842.htm

2. Guardian digest of the Scientific Reports study [3]

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/13/two-hour-dose-nature-weekly-boosts-health-study-finds

3. Scientific Reports original article

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46099-7

4. WHO report on urban green spaces and health

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/321971/Urban-green-spaces-and-health-review-evidence.pdf?ua=1

5. PLoS One Public Parks and Wellbeing in Urban Areas of the United States

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153211


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