A Simple Strategy for Boosting Happiness and Health: Spend Time in Nature
A recent analysis published in The Washington Post examined data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey to compare rates of happiness across people in different professions. This analysis of America’s most — and least — happy workers revealed fascinating findings.
Who are the least happy workers? Lawyers. (And as one married to a lawyer, this was not a particularly unexpected finding.)
Who are the most? These results I found much more surprising: lumberjacks, foresters, and farmers.
These three occupations share one key feature that is rather obvious: these are jobs that involve working outside. And these jobs don’t simply involve being outside — instead, they involve being outside in nature (as opposed to say, a construction worker building a skyscraper or an interstate highway).
These findings help explain why many companies spend vast sums to bring nature into the workplace, from the meeting rooms with vine-covered walls in Amazon’s Seattle headquarters to the forest of trees on Apple’s campus in Cupertino, California.
What’s so good about spending time in nature? Here’s what empirical research reveals.
Nature Increases Happiness
Think about a time you’ve walked on a beach, strolled through a flowering garden, heard the sound of birds chirping, or merely looked through a window at grass and plants. How did you feel? For many people, seeing, hearing, or even thinking about nature makes us feel more energetic, peaceful, and alive. This is why we pay more for a hotel room with a view of the ocean or a home with a great lawn.
In one study, researchers examined data from more than ten thousand people living in Britain. Study participants provided ratings for their overall mood as well as life satisfaction. This data also included information on where the people lived, so that researchers could measure the amount of nature — including gardens, parks, and water — they are exposed to daily. But perhaps most important, this data was collected annually for eighteen years, which allowed them to test how moving to a new location (which could contain a different amount of nature) was associated with mood and life satisfaction.
These findings revealed substantial benefits of living in environments near nature. Specifically, people who lived near nature showed significantly lower rates of anxiety and depression, and significantly higher rates of overall life satisfaction.
Results from a study conducted in various neighborhoods in Wisconsin revealed similar findings. Across all income levels, people who lived in a neighborhood with more than 10 percent tree canopy were less likely to report depression and anxiety.
Nature Reduces Stress
Spending time in nature helps both our brains and our bodies to relax. Exposure to nature basically switches the body from a state of high physiological arousal to one of rest and relaxation. People who walk through a park for an hour later feel less anxious than those who walk along a busy street. They also show lower levels of rumination, which can lead to depression.
In one fascinating study, participants wore caps containing electrodes so that researchers could assess brain activity. The researchers then compared how the brain responded to different types of environments. As they predicted, people walking in a parklike setting showed calmer brain waves, including lower levels of arousal and frustration, than people walking in urban areas.
This type of short-term exposure to nature even helps reduce the physiological toll of stress. For example, research from Japan on shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing,” meaning spending time in a forest area) shows simply walking in a forest for twenty or so minutes leads to lower levels of blood pressure, heart rate, and the stress hormone cortisol compared to walking in an urban area.
These findings explain why people who regularly spend time in nature — including city parks and private gardens — report lower rates of stress and stress-related illnesses.
Nature Improves Health
Given the role nature plays in reducing stress and arousal, it’s not surprising that people who spend time in nature experience better overall physical well-being and fewer health-related complaints. For example, people who live in neighborhoods with more green space, such as trees and parks, have lower levels of chronic illness, including diabetes, hypertension, and lipid disorders.
People who spend time in nature also have lower rates of high blood pressure. In fact, some evidence suggests that visits to outdoor green spaces of thirty minutes or more each week could reduce the prevalence of hypertension — a major contributor to other chronic disorders — by as much as 9 percent.
Most important, longitudinal research reveals spending time in nature can actually lengthen our lives. Researchers in one study monitored more than one hundred thousand women who completed health questionnaires over a period of eight years. They also examined — using satellite imagery — the amount of green vegetation in a person’s neighborhood. Even after adjusting for other factors that increase the risk of death, women living in areas with the most greenness had a 12 percent lower rate of mortality than those living in areas with the least greenness.
The Key Takeaway Point
The scientific evidence is clear — spending time in nature is tremendously beneficial for happiness and health.
And here’s perhaps the best news: even brief exposure to nature leads to increases in happiness. People who simply walk past clusters of greenery in a city show spikes in happiness, suggesting that even flower beds, trees, and small strips of green in an urban environment make us feel good. Similarly, people who have more exposure to any type of nature in their work environment — from seeing nature outside their window to having a live plant in their office to spending breaks outside — report lower levels of stress and fewer health complaints.
So, don’t worry if you can’t imagine finding the time for a thirty-minute stroll outside each day — or don’t work as a lumberjack, forester, or farmer! You can improve your happiness — and health — simply by finding small ways to integrate nature into your daily life.
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