Every spring — and perhaps this one more than most — there’s a palpable feeling of joy on the first few warm, sunny days. People pour out of buildings. Jackets come off. Picnic blankets come out. Stress levels drop — or at least scientists suspect so.
Research into the antistress benefits of the outdoors is still early, but studies suggest there may be something to it.
For starters, green is clearly a happy color for most people. Those who move to greener communities report a higher level of satisfaction with life, regardless of income or other factors, an 18-year study in the United Kingdom has shown. Living near the sea brings even more joy.
In another ongoing study, British researchers are using a cellphone app called Mappiness to link people’s feelings of happiness with their physical location. App users report being happier when they are in a green space, said Mappiness founder George MacKerron, a
lecturer in economics at the University of
The effect is pretty large. For Mappiness users, no other activity offers a bigger boost. The gain in mental health that comes from moving somewhere greener is equal to about one-third the bump of getting married and lasts for at least three years, said Ian Alcock, a research fellow at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School.
“We were surprised at the magnitude of living in these greener areas — that it should be as substantial as that,” he said.
It’s not clear precisely why being in nature can boost mood, but Alcock said there’s some evidence for three reasons: being in nature helps people relax, get more exercise, and interact with others.
Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, said she thinks that the human brain is drawn to change, and in nature there’s always something new to explore.
“We notice the changes, and that’s the essence of mindfulness,” said Langer, author of “Mindfulness,” “Counterclockwise,” and “On Becoming an Artist.”
Of course, not all of us benefit from being outside. To some, there is added stress from being in nature — with bugs, uncontrolled temperatures, allergies, etc., said Ben Wheeler, a senior research fellow at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health.
But both he and Alcock admit that their research has had an impact on their own lives. They now make more of an effort to take long walks or jogs along the sea.