Happy Earth Day! On this day celebrating our precious home, I thought it would be interesting to explore the research on earth and happiness. I have heard from numerous sources that nature can improve one’s mood, but I had yet to see much concrete evidence to support the claim. Turns out there is tons!
So what exactly is known about the link between nature and psychological wellbeing?
A study conducted at Stanford University had participants go on a 50-minute walk on either an urban or natural route. Researchers found that those who walked through the park had decreased anxiety and rumination when compared those who went along the urban route. Additionally, the nature trail was also found to increase working memory.
Another study by the same research group added to these results by analyzing neural activity after urban versus nature walks. The subgenual prefrontal cortex (sgPFC) is a region of the brain that has been linked to sadness, rumination and depression. After the 90-minute walk, an imaging technique known as ASL was used to measure the volume of blood passing through that region of the brain. This technique found that the nature walk led to decreased activity in the sgPFC, which was not observed for the urban walk. This suggests that the part of the brain responsible for depressed moods can be quieted by nature.
Nature recreation activities have also been linked to better moods. A Finnish study analyzed survey data from over 3000 participants regarding nature activities and well-being. The results showed that individuals who reported greater participation in nature activities had better self-reported emotional well-being scores. Interestingly, this relationship was not influenced by the presence or absence of social acquaintances nor by the duration of the activity.
Not only has nature walks been found to have positive emotional benefits, but physical benefits have been observed as well. Researchers in Japan analyzed the heart rate and EKG readings of subjects after a 15-minute walk along either a nature or urban path. The EKG was used to measure parasympathetic (rest and digest) and sympathetic (fight or flight) neuronal pathways. The nature walk led to decreased heart rates, lower sympathetic activity and increased parasympathetic activity compared to an urban walk. The data suggests that nature can calm the body and decrease stress pathways.
Together, these studies support the claims that being in nature has positive mental and physical effects. Moving to the countryside may not be the most realistic solution for most individuals. Instead, let’s all vow to go on more walks through the local park. Despite the recent stressful but memorable hike my family had on Easter, I can’t deny how refreshing and relaxing nature can be. This Earth Day, I am going to be sure to step outside and take a few moments to actually stop and smell the roses.
Until next time,