After more than a year in various stages of COVID-19 restrictions, many folks are struggling in more ways than one. If you’re looking to find more joy in your current circumstances, a new study offers a scientifically proven solution to feel happier.
It starts with opening your front door to the great outdoors…
The mental health benefits of nature have been confirmed in countless studies through the decades. In fact, the health benefits of spending time outside are so well documented that doctors sometimes call for “nature prescriptions” to relieve chronic stress, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, a study published in the journal Nature found spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is good for health and wellbeing.1
Now researchers have taken their investigation into a world in lockdown. They followed a group of 286 adults in Australia in April 2020 when restrictions only allowed them to leave their homes for specific essential activities, including exercise.2
This new study examined how levels of happiness during a national lockdown were affected by time spent outside, amount of daily screen time (TV, computer, smartphone) and feelings of loneliness.
Using what’s called an experience sampling method, researchers measured levels of perceived happiness by checking in with the group three times a day, at random intervals, over a 21-day period.
The researchers found that levels of happiness were higher when folks were outdoors. More daily screen time and higher levels of loneliness were associated with lower levels of happiness.
They also found the impact of loneliness on happiness was weaker in those who spent more time outside.
Co-lead author Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), acknowledges lockdowns may slow the transmission of the virus. However, Dr. Swami notes past research has also shown that prolonged periods of lockdown take their toll on mental health.
Dr. Swami’s study results are important as they show that time spent outdoors during lockdown has a positive impact on mental well-being.
“Being outdoors provides opportunities to escape from the stresses of being confined at home, maintain social relationships with others, and engage in physical activity — all of which can improve mental health,” Dr. Swami explains.
In a nutshell, he says, getting some fresh air instead of staying indoors and staring at our screens can really help to lift people’s moods.
Gardening Helps, Too
A new study from Scotland also looked at the benefits of nature, in particular home gardening, during the COVID-19 pandemic.3
Based on a self-reported survey, researchers found older adults in Scotland who spent more time in the garden during the COVID-19 lockdown, experienced significantly better emotional and mental wellbeing as well as better sleep quality.
I’m an avid gardener so this study doesn’t surprise me – pandemic or no pandemic.
I’m sure there will be more research pointing to the mental health benefits of nature after we gain better control of the COVID-19 virus. For now, experts only have an inkling as to why nature is so helpful to our bodies during stressful times.
Dr. Keith Tidball, PhD, author of Greening in the Red Zone, and an expert on nature’s role in building resilience, points to the hope that nature provides.
“We spent thousands and thousands of years among the rest of nature, that’s how we were designed,” he explained in an interview.4 “It’s only in the last couple hundred years that we’ve become separate from it. But we’re compelled to affiliate with nature, which comes to the fore with urgency in times of crisis, because we associate nature with the healing aspects of hope and optimism.”
I believe that nature’s secret sauce is its ability to wash away our worries. Perhaps it’s the slow-moving clouds or gentle breezes that distract us from negative thoughts. Researchers call this ability to divert our attention the “soft fascination” of nature.
I enjoy walking first thing in the morning when the air is fresh. Or simply opening a window to let some cool outside air in to energize me. Even a short jaunt down to the mailbox can do the trick. It provides time to take a deep breath, look up at the sky and feel more at peace and hopeful for the future.
- White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good
health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).
- Stefan Stieger, David Lewetz, Viren Swami. Emotional Well-Being Under Conditions of Lockdown: An Experience Sampling Study in Austria During the COVID-19 Pandemic.