“[O]ne of the biggest variables for their subjects (who tended to be young, employed and educated) was where they were. They were significantly happier outdoors, especially in natural settings, than they were indoors, even when the researchers tried to control for the effects of being at work.
But there was a catch: Most of the participants didn’t behave as if they knew this, because they were rarely outside. They were indoors or in vehicles for 93% of their waking hours.
The Mappiness study reveals our epidemic dislocation from the outdoors—an indictment not just of the structures and expectations of modern life but of our self-understanding. As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. Why don’t we do more of what makes us happy? Part of the answer is that we’re flat-out busy. But even when we have free time, we’re not always smart about how we spend it.
I have long been a believer in the connection between happiness, creative energy, and the outdoors. Put me on a bike or on a walk (throw in a dog for a multiplier effect) and I always come home feeling good and with at least three worthwhile insights into work or life. Put me on a boat and I come home transformed.
Busyness, as Florence notes, is a huge block to feeding our souls in the outdoors (and busyness is so often purposeless). Social media and cable news are also two indoor, soul-sapping, distractions (and connecting to social media while outdoors is a particularly odious felony). So do we have a formula for a better, happier, existence? I think we do: Fewer electronic distractions, less meaningless busyness, more time outdoors and unplugged. Pretty simple and pretty effective.
In England researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School recently analyzed mental health data from 10,000 city dwellers and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near more green space reported less mental distress, even after adjusting for income, education, and employment (all of which are also correlated with health). In 2009 a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within about a half mile of green space. And in 2015 an international team overlaid health questionnaire responses from more than 31,000 Toronto residents onto a map of the city, block by block. Those living on blocks with more trees showed a boost in heart and metabolic health equivalent to what one would experience from a $20,000 gain in income. Lower mortality and fewer stress hormones circulating in the blood have also been connected to living close to green space.
It’s difficult to tell from these kinds of studies why people feel better. Is it the fresh air? Do certain colors or fractal shapes trigger neurochemicals in our visual cortex? Or is it just that people in greener neighborhoods use the parks to exercise more? That’s what Richard Mitchell, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, thought at first. “I was skeptical,” he says. But then he did a large study that found less death and disease in people who lived near parks or other green space—even if they didn’t use them. “Our own studies plus others show these restorative effects whether you’ve gone for walks or not,” Mitchell says. Moreover, the lowest income people seemed to gain the most: In the city, Mitchell found, being close to nature is a social leveler.