Greenspace: The Surprising Savior of Happiness

An overwhelming body of research has begun to show that spending time in greenspace improves your happiness, your health and even your cognitive functioning.

So much so, in fact, that for the first time in 2020 the World Happiness Report began including “quality of the environment” in their assessment of people’s well-being.

The list of benefits from a nature experience are so wonderful it reads like a snake oil ad: Be happier! Reduce your stress! Improve your brain functioning! Elevate your mood! Live longer! Get your ex back!

Ok, one of those benefits was not legit…but you get the point.

Photo by Meredith Dennis

Researchers all over the world find that seemingly ordinary nature experiences, like seeing a tree and grass outside your window vs. a brick wall, can have dramatic effects on your health.

In fact, one 1980’s study used those exact examples—a green courtyard vs. a brick wall—to study the post-operative recovery times of adults in a hospital in Pennsylvania. The patients were randomly assigned to rooms with either a brick wall or a green scene out the window.

The patients who were allowed to look at nature while they recovered had shorter recovery times, needed less pain medication, and had fewer negative notes in their nurse’s charts.

We don’t appreciate how good nature is for us—and that’s a problem.

A study by researchers at Carleton College in 2011 asked students to rate how they thought they would feel after they took a walk. The students were randomized into groups that walked in either a public park or in the tunnels underneath the college.

The students who walked outside reported having a better mood afterward, which isn’t terribly surprising. What is interesting is that students consistently underrated how much a walk outside would improve their moods.

Photo by Meredith Dennis

The finding may seem subtle, but think about it. It points to something primal we may be prone to overlook in our modern societies: we are designed to exist outdoors. And just like every other animal on the planet, we do best in our natural habitats.

We are ignoring a very simple way to improve our happiness: just go outside.

Now, we should note that Carleton College is located in Minnesota, which, by virtue of the fact that they have tunnels under their campus to get people around, underscores my understanding that Minnesota has hellacious weather. So maybe the students underrated how chipper they’d feel after a walk because frozen nose hairs aren’t fun for anyone.

But, even if that were the case, the study also reinforces the idea that the psychological benefits of being outside can be triggered with relatively little effort. A tree-lined street will do. You don’t necessarily need the majesty of a national park, but you do need a somewhat healthy eco-space.

This German study looked at whether abandoned “waste” land had the same psychological effects as urban greenspaces and they found that abandoned spaces negatively impacted well-being.

The Carleton College study is somewhat older (2011), but it’s incredibly relevant today. It makes me wonder how those small underestimations impact nature every day. If you’ve forgotten how good a walk in the park makes you feel, will you vote to protect it?

Decisions are being made at all levels of our society that will influence the fate of this very planet, and I hope we can remember, or perhaps rediscover, how vitally important nature is to our well-being.

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