City Parks Can Improve Mood As Much As Christmas, Twitter Study Finds

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Life in a big city can be grating. Humans weren’t exactly meant to live within the concrete jungles that so many of us call home today, and sometimes all of that hustle and bustle can have a negative effect on our mental health. Well, if urban life is bringing you down, try finding the nearest park and give yourself a moment to relax around nature. That’s the advice from a team of University of Vermont researchers who found that Twitter users who visited a city park used more positive language and expressed less negativity following their visit for up to four hours afterwards.

This observed spike in positive social media activity was so pronounced, researchers say it rivals the good vibes found among Christmas Day tweets, statistically the happiest day of the year on Twitter. These findings could prove especially useful for public health and urban planning officials moving forward.

Over the course of three months, researchers analyzed hundreds of tweets, everyday, from 160 parks across San Francisco.

“We found that, yes, across all the tweets, people are happier in parks,” explains lead researcher Aaron Schwartz in a statement. “But the effect was stronger in large regional parks with extensive tree cover and vegetation.”

Interestingly, the bigger the park, the more positive of an impact it had on visitors’ mindsets. Smaller parks displayed less mood elevation than larger parks, and “mini-parks,” such as plazas or squares, were the least effective in bringing about a more positive mood. According to the authors, this indicates that it isn’t just getting outside or taking a break from work that is producing positive feelings, but actively being around nature and greenery. This coincides with the study’s other finding that parks with more greenery and vegetation had the biggest positive impact on mood.

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While much of the conversation surrounding urban park expansion and upkeep revolves around more financial concerns, the study’s authors say it is clear that these places fulfill a very real mental need among city dwellers.

“This study is part of a new wave of research that expands beyond monetary benefits to quantify the direct health benefits of nature. What’s even more innovative here is our focus on mental health benefits –which have been really underappreciated and understudied,” comments study co-author Taylor Ricketts.

For their analysis, the research team used a hedonometer, a special online instrument developed by UVM scientists and co-authors on this study, to gather and analyze tweets. This instrument uses a pool of roughly 10,000 words, all of which have been graded on their “psychological valence,” or emotional power. For example, a positive word such as “happy” is graded highly at 8.30, but a more negative word like “trapped” is graded at 3.08.

The authors chose 4,688 tweets specifically sent out by users who publicly identified their location within the city of San Francisco.

“Then, working with the U.S. Forest Service, we developed some new techniques for mapping vegetation of urban areas–at a very detailed resolution, about a thousand times more detailed than existing methods,” says Jarlath O’Neil-Dunne, a study co-author. “That’s what really enabled us to get an accurate understanding of how the greenness and vegetation of these urban areas relates to people’s sentiment there.”

In all, tweets posted from urban parks were happier by .23 points on the hedonometer scale over the baseline. That’s an increase in happiness just about equal to Christmas Day on Twitter, the study states.

Twitter users also stopped using negative words such as “can’t” or “don’t” after visiting a city park, and the use of first-person pronouns, such as “I” or “me” also decreased. Researchers speculate that this means visiting nature puts people into a more “collective mental frame” in which the individual stops thinking about themselves.

While Twitter users may not represent the entire population, they are still a very broad demographic. Furthermore, the real-time reporting and data that Twitter provides has proven useful and given researchers a new way to investigate mood swings and emotions among large groups in specific locations or during certain events or holidays.

The study is published in the scientific journal People and Nature.

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