Greenspace: The Surprising Savior of Happiness

Practically every product in existence is marketed to influence your happiness in some way. The reason: marketing experts know nothing is more compelling than the desire to increase your happiness.

But there’s something most people already have access to that they probably aren’t taking full advantage of.

It’s something we have less of every year.

But we only need in small doses to be effective.

It’s something you can likely see out your window.

Photo by Meredith Dennis

It’s outdoor green space

There is an overwhelming body of research showing that spending time in green space 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 almost 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…

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.

I also learned that nurses talk shit about us in our charts. Hmm!

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 their current mood AND 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, but the finding I find most interesting is that they found 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 their state is a frozen hell hole.

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 green spaces and they found that abandoned spaces negatively impacted well-being. Not a shocking finding to be frank.

The Carleton College study is somewhat older (2011), but it’s incredibly relevant today. It makes me wonder how those small underestimations will impact that nature in the future.

Decisions are being made today—at all levels of our society–that will influence the fate of this very planet, and if we don’t value how important healthy natural spaces are for us, will we save them?

I hope so. In the meantime, I’m gonna go take a walk 🙂

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