Parks Are Nice, But Natural Outdoor Settings Will Make You Happiest, Study Finds

GUILDFORD, England — If you want to truly relax, you might have to travel a little farther than your neighborhood park. Splashing your toes in the surf, strolling down a country lane or visiting a national park is more likely to bring about blissful feelings that last.

Researchers from several British universities discovered that while spending time in nature has been proven to be beneficial to one’s mental health, enjoying a half-hour in natural outdoor settings maximizes feelings of happiness and refreshment.

Couple relaxing outdoors
Spending time in nature has been proven to be beneficial to one’s mental health, but a new study finds enjoying at least 30 minutes in natural outdoor settings maximizes feelings of happiness and refreshment.

“We’ve demonstrated for some time that nature can be beneficial to us, but we’re still exploring how and why,” says lead author Kayleigh Wyles, of the University of Surrey, in a news release. “Here we have found that our mental well being and our emotional bond with nature may differ depending on the type and quality of an environment we visit.”

Researchers wanted to learn how the type and quality of natural environment impacts our outdoor experiences. They looked at data from a survey in England in which 4,515 participants answered questions about a recent time spent in nature. The authors determined that participants felt more connection to nature and that the feelings of happiness and refreshment were highest when they spent time in rural or coastal areas or in protected or designated natural areas, such as national parks.

Although there were benefits from spending time in urban green areas, such as city parks and gardens, researchers found that the most beneficial encounters with nature came from spending time in the most natural outdoor settings. Researchers said that visits of 30 minutes or longer gave participants the highest levels of contentment as well as feelings of unity with nature.

“These findings are important,” argues Wyles, “as they not only help unpick the mechanisms behind these psychological benefits, but they can also help to prioritize the protection of these environments and emphasize why accessibility to nature is so important.”

Researchers say these benefits were true for all who participated in the study, socio-economic status notwithstanding. They believe this shows the value of maintaining free or affordable entrance fees to natural outdoor settings.

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The authors also point out that while other studies have shown that time in nature reduces stress and elevates feelings of happiness, this study is the first to demonstrate what types of natural settings provide the most psychological benefits. It also gives us an additional reason to protect our natural environments, not just to preserve the preserve but to preserve our own sanity.

“It was surprising to learn that the extent of protection of marine environments also affects the extent of mental health benefits that people gain from their interactions with the sea,” adds Mel Austen of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory. “People’s health is likely to become an increasingly important aspect to consider as we manage our coasts and waters for the benefit of all users.”

The full study was published Oct. 31, 2017 in the journal Environment & Behavior.

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