5 Ways to Reap the Mental Health Benefits of Getting Outside
Whether you're reading the paper in your own backyard or spending a Saturday afternoon hiking a nearby wooded trail, soaking up time in nature has been linked to better mental (and physical) health. In one famous 1984 study, even looking at nature through a window seemed to help: Hospital patients recovering in rooms where they could see trees and grass had better outcomes and needed less pain medication than those in rooms where their window looked out at a brick wall.
Researchers are still studying the exact mechanisms that link a better mood with time spent outside, says Peter James of the department of environmental health at Boston's Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as well as looking into some of the specifics—like how long you need to be outside to see an improvement in mood (two hours a week is the current recommendation) and whether you need to be in a fully wooded, natural area, or if your backyard works just as well. Long-term studies suggest that the biggest improvements are found when comparing people who live in an urban environment with their neighbors who live in a greener part of the city—indicating that regular exposure to smaller amounts of green space can be as, or more, effective than a single annual camping trip. "It's not necessarily about parks," says James. "What we really need is to have nature be part of our everyday lives."
The link between green space and an improved mood is the culmination of a variety of factors working together, says James; incorporate some—or all—of them for maximum mood-boosting benefits.
Pick calm surroundings
Though you can feel better in your own backyard, spending time in a dedicated green space can reduce the stress that stems from your noisy neighbors, rush hour honks, and freeway exhaust. Parks and trails are often set back from busy areas, lowering exposure to noise and air pollution; they're also often cooler, shaded, and breezier. "Those environmental factors are associated with stress, and reduced in a greener space," says James.
Time spent outside often includes physical activity, whether it's a leisurely stroll around your neighborhood after dinner, a one-on-one game with the kids, or a walk on the beach. Ultimately, physical activity of any kind is associated with better mental health.
Leaving the house allows you more opportunities to socialize—another key element of happiness and satisfaction—by saying hello to your neighbors during your evening walk, fishing with an old friend on the weekend, or planning a picnic with friends during a concert at a winery.
Look at a tree
It sounds simplistic, but the idea of biophila, says James—that "[to be outside is] our natural setting [and that] we've evolved to have an affinity for nature"—suggests that reconnecting with the outdoors could be a direct road to feeling better. "We've evolved in this setting," says James, "and so the ability to recover from stress is better in natural settings, because that's where we are meant to be. Just the idea of getting out, being in nature, looking at a tree—the theory is that this helps you to recover from stress, improves your mental health, and improves cognition. It's just a direct pathway."
Leave distractions inside
One of the theories about why we feel happier in nature includes the idea of attention restoration theory, says James. "Modern society takes directed attention," he explains, whether that's writing a work presentation, answering the constant pings of your phone, or looking both ways before you cross the street. "Being in a natural setting helps us restore cognition, and get our brains refreshed—it allows for indirect attention," says James, as you listen to birdsong, watch ocean waves roll in, or let your mind wander. "These simple things allow us to restore our direct attention, so we have more capacity for the next brain activity," he says.