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The Secret To Staying Happy Is Getting Whatever Exposure To Nature You Can Get

A new study finds that even just seeing a tree or hearing a birdsong will up your state of mind.

The Secret To Staying Happy Is Getting Whatever Exposure To Nature You Can Get
[Photo: fanjianhua/iStock]

Plenty of research shows that spending time in nature has powerful health benefits. For people working in cities, that’s not always possible, but there an approximate way to stay positive at least: New research shows that even if you’re trapped in an office or only able to step outside for a moment, small exposures to outdoorsy indicators–seeing trees, the sky, or hearing a birdsong–can boost your mood.

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The effect doesn’t disappear once you’ve returned to a cloistered cubicle or apartment: It can last for several hours, with especially strong results for people who suffer from mental disorders.

The study, from King’s College London, was published in the January edition of BioScience. Its proper title: “Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the Impact of Nature on Mental Well-Being in Real Time.” The work was supported by by The Van Alen Institute and Sustainable Society Network+, both of which champion ways to improve city living through better urban design.

[Photo: Gabriel Santiago/Unsplash]

To determine the connection, researchers used a smartphone app called Urban Mind that pushes short surveys to recipients at different intervals throughout the day. Users who accept the notification can geo-tag their location, and then answer several questions about their immediate surroundings. There’s a delay button if you’re busy, but the notice times out after 30 minutes.

Study participants joined the effort after seeing it advertised on social media. In total 108 people signed up. Their in-app field work started with a mental well-being analysis (basically, a quick survey based on the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale), and another short exercise to gauge impulsivity, which is often associated with psychological conditions including ADHD to addiction.

Each person then received seven dispatches or “ecological momentary assessments” per day for one week. These are short surveys asking the person to share their current mood, followed by answering six questions to gauge their whereabouts: “Are you indoors or outdoors? Can you see trees? Can you see the sky? Can you hear birds singing? Can you see or hear water? Do you feel in contact with nature?” (Recipients could offer one of three responses: yes, no, or not sure.)

Additionally, the app asked users to take photos or record audio of their surroundings, both to add confirming data but also because it seemed like a good way to keep people interested in the app. Given the fact that the survey was done on smartphones and advertised over social media, the respondent pool had some very non-inclusive similarities: Most were young, college-educated city dwellers. That leaves out a large variety of people who live in urban areas, especially those on the other side of the digital divide.

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Not everyone engaged with every alert they were sent. But among respondents who answered at least half the prompts, there was a strong association between their mental well-being and factors like being outdoors, or, if not, at least seeing trees from their windows. Things like hearing birds, and seeing the sky also showed positive correlations, although the effect was less pronounced for the sight or sound of rivers and streams.

Two a half hours later–about when the next assessment ping arrived–it appears that all of those classic natural associations still had a substantial mood-lifting effect. On days when check-ins showed that people got a little dose of nature beforehand, they stayed in better spirits for longer periods of time. Among people with higher traits of impulsivity, those effects were magnified even more.

Either way, having access to a good view, skylight, or nearby park would appear good for you, something cities need to keep in mind as more of the world’s people moves there. Currently, 80% of the U.S. population or about 250 million people live in cities, with the vast majority around the globe expected to migrate to urban areas by 2050. “[F]rom the perspective of mental health, the data could inform the development of low-cost scalable interventions aimed at promoting mental health in urban populations,” notes the study.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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