Spending More Time in Nature Could Be the Key to Happiness, According to Research
Think about the best vacation you ever took. Did you spend all day soaking up the sun on a sandy beach? Or maybe you prefer skiing or hiking in the mountains? Either way, most of our best vacation memories come from spending time in the great outdoors, and research shows the more time we spend outside, the happier we are.
New research from the University of Singapore studied specific hashtags on social media accounts around the world and the locations of where these posts were taken. Posts that were tagged #fun, #vacation and #honeymoon were more likely to contain elements of nature than those tagged #daily or #routine. The latter hashtags were more likely to be posted indoors. The authors of the study say their findings offer evidence for humans' innate tendency to seek connection with nature.
They also found that the amount of nature experiences offered in a country is linked to the life satisfaction of its residents. Active countries like Finland, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Canada experience the most life satisfaction, according to the World Happiness Report 2019.
"Our study brings to light the cultural and social values that nature brings to humans," said author L. Roman Carrasco, Ph.D., in a press release. "It further emphasizes the importance of preserving our natural environment, for the loss of nature may mean more than losing quantifiable economic and ecological benefits. It could also mean losing the background to our fondest memories."
This research supports dozens of other studies associating nature with improved mental and physical health. Another recent study out of Cornell University found spending at least 10 minutes a day in natural spaces (think: a park or walking trail) improved mood, focus and physiological markers like blood pressure and heart rate in college students. The authors of this study say their findings warrant further study in prescribing "nature therapy" to stressed, anxious or depressed patients.
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Some health professionals are already prescribing nature to their patients. Doctors in Scotland have created calendars with 10 monthly prompts that encourage patients to get outdoors.
Dr. Robert Zarr, a pediatrician based in Washington, D.C., helped establish Park Rx America to decrease chronic disease—and increase health and happiness—through spending time in nature. The non-profit organization's infographic poster has some pretty compelling evidence for us to get outdoors.
The Bottom Line
The U.S. Travel Association reports more than half of Americans don't use all their vacation days. The report says this keeps you from being as productive, creative, focused and resilient as you could be if you gave yourself some time off. Taking more time off could also help you prevent burnout, which can cause some serious mental health issues.
The U.S. currently ranks 19th on the World Happiness Report and suicide and depression rates are consistently growing—especially in adolescents. A report from Deloitte found the top three activities Americans spend their time on are working, sleeping and watching TV. We're growing more attached to technology, which leaves us sedentary and indoors. This combination of a sedentary lifestyle and not getting outside could be disastrous for our health.
While getting outside isn't a cure for all woes, it could be worth finally planning that tropical vacation or taking the family for a hike on a nearby trail. At the very least, it's certainly worth scheduling in some "nature time" a few days a week (weather permitting) to eat your lunch, go for a walk, hold a meeting or even catch up on your email in a nearby green space. You don't need an expensive vacation to reap the mental health benefits of being outdoors—you just have to get out there.