Can being in nature make you happy?
Ongoing research indicates the answer is yes. Spending time outside has been linked to cognitive improvements, emotional well-being and — if you spend your time outside exercising — physical health.
A Look at the Research
Several studies link exposure to green spaces and blue spaces (lakes, oceans, etc.) to positively impacting general mental health and cognitive ability. The idea took root in a study published in 1984 by Roger Ulrich, a professor and director of the Center for Helth Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, that followed recovery rates of patients who had gall bladder surgeries. Those with a nature view were in the hospital for fewer days and used fewer pain medications than those whose rooms faced brick walls. This research launched more than three decades of research that continues to this day. Several of them are highlighted in an intriguing report out of the University of California, Davis. Following are a few highlights; if interested, you can find the full report here.
After controlling factors such as income, marital status, employment and more that can affect your sense of well-being, researchers at the University of Exeter found that the more green space there is within 2.5 miles from your home, the greater your well-being.
In fact, moving from an area of scant green space to a neighborhood with abundant green space was about a third of the effect of getting married and one-tenth of the effect from finding a job after being unemployed.
One experiment testing Rachel and Stephen Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory, which suggests nature can restore depleted cognitive function and maintain performance, tasked participants with a rigorous memory and attention test. They then took a 50- to 55-minute walk through either the Ann Arbor Arboretum or downtown Ann Arbor, Mich., returning to take the test again. Those who walked through the arboretum scored significantly higher.
In another study, nearly 2,500 people were tracked to see their mental health outcomes when living in areas that had a higher level of vegetation and tree canopy coverage. After controlling a variety of socioeconomic factors, the authors saw that higher levels of neighborhood green space corresponded with significantly lower levels of reported symptoms for depression, anxiety and stress.
In short, spending time outside has numerous benefits:
- Improved memory
- Greater attention spans
- Better concentration
- Reduced stress and anxiety
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- A lower mortality rate
- Enhanced sleep
How Much Time Outside?
Unlike the Ann Arbor study mentioned above, you don’t have to spend nearly an hour being outdoors to reap the healing benefits of Mother Nature. A 2019 study published by Frontiers in Psychology says spending just 20 minutes outside can help reduce stress. Similarly, Harvard Health Publishing found that enjoying 20 to 30 minutes in nature also dropped levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And you didn’t have to be walking — simply sitting outside is beneficial. A 2016 Australian study saw fewer cases of high blood pressure in individuals who spent 30 minutes each week outside.
A Sunny Summary
Spending time in nature isn’t a miracle cure, but it can help reduce things such as stress levels and high blood pressure that can adversely affect our physical and emotional well-being. And finding a connection to nature beyond spending time outside — listening to nature sounds, watching nature documentaries, growing plants — furthers the health benefits of being outdoors and can even help stave off the effects of social isolation. So next time you’re feeling blue or stressed, open the door and step outside.
Dive into our wellness guide for more tips