Does nature really make us happy? Here’s the science

August 02, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Do you feel better when you’re outdoors — even if it’s just pulling weeds? Calmer when you walk in the woods? More focused when you stare at the mountains? Kinder after watching a sunset?

You’re not imagining it. There’s a reason mental health experts recommend spending more time outdoors. And it’s much more than a hunch, says Jenny Roe, professor and director of the Center for Design & Health in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.

Nature makes us happier and healthier. Literally. And she has the scientific data to prove it.

Fifteen years ago, Roe started conducting research to definitively prove the nature-wellness connection. She recently shared some of her findings in a master class at the Chicago Botanic Garden and in her book Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing. She has also published her academic findings in more than 55 peer-reviewed publications.

To inspire ourselves to spend more time in natural settings, Roe invites us to keep these three benefits top of mind:

Nature helps regulate our stress system

The next time you’re debating whether to finish that last assignment at your desk or spend an hour outside, here’s the reason to go for the green: “Nature reduces stress levels,” says Roe.

To scientifically prove it, Roe tracked the ability of at-risk populations to access nature and studied how this impacted their stress levels. She correlated socioeconomic and housing data to the proximity of green spaces. Roe then measured the level of cortisol in people from stressed, low socioeconomic populations when they were in nature and not in nature. Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone in our adrenal glands that helps regulate the body’s response to stress.

The result? The participants’ cortisol levels dropped when they were in natural, green places.

Natures improves our focus

You’ve got a deadline. But. You. Just. Can’t. Focus!

Should you double down and bang it out? Or take a break and get some fresh air? The science points to the latter, says Roe who conducted a study in which participants took a cognitive test before and after they were exposed to nature.

The result? “Being outdoors will help shift your mindset. It will help bring back your attentional capacity. It will reduce your cognitive fatigue,” reports Roe. “Consistently over literally hundreds of studies, cognitive attention increases after exposure to nature.”

So, if you can’t quiet your mind to the project at hand, prescribe yourself a dose of nature. It will help you get the job done after you take that walk.

Nature makes us kinder

Her third finding is the most unexpected. Spending time outdoors makes you nicer, Roe says. “Access to nature is linked with increased altruism, and with an increased sense of belonging and connection to place, which I think is super important in a world which is so sort of divided, right?”

Roe cites research tracking acts of altruism, such as in a study where a person “accidentally” drops a $10 bill in a public space.

The results? People are more likely to give back the $10 dollar bill if somebody loses it in the park than if they're in an urban setting, she says.

Case made. Green is good.

Need a doctor? Find the right one for you at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, you may need some extra support. Talk to your doctor about seeking help from a professional. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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