What makes you feel joy? I promise I’m not about to get all Marie Kondo on you right now; this has nothing to do with tossing old books or clothes. But it does have everything to do with you and your disposition in this very moment. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but personally, I think happiness is often depicted as this super complicated thing you have to work really hard to achieve when, in reality, you already have the tools you need to boost your mood. In fact, science says that being outside can make you happy, even if all you do is walk out the door and simply co-exist with nature.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I love a self-care Sunday as much as anyone. Practicing five minutes of meditation when you wake up in the morning, eating mindfully so that you really savor each bite, finding a workout routine that works for you, taking a step back from technology — these are all fantastic mood-boosting habits to adopt in your everyday life, but they all have one thing in common: effort, and a whole lot of it at that.
In a perfect world, finding happiness wouldn’t take up so much time and energy and planning. In a perfect world, happiness would just come naturally, right? Well, this world is definitely far from perfect, but new research says happiness is a park on a sunny afternoon, or a stroll around your neighborhood in the morning. All you have to do is get outside and soak it all in, friends.
On that note, do you have 20 minutes to spare? Because according to researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), spending just 20 minutes at the park can make you feel happier, and it doesn’t even matter what you do with yourself when you get there. Per UAB’s official press release, you could spend that full 20 minutes sitting on a bench, and still feel noticeably more positive by the time you leave.
For their experiment, researchers recruited 94 visitors of the state’s three main public parks in Mountain Brook, Alabama to complete a survey immediately before and after their time spent in the park. According to the study's findings, which have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, participants also wore an accelerometer — aka an activity tracker — during their visit. The results showed that a mere 20 minutes in the park led to a 64 percent increase in life satisfaction, regardless of whether or not participants engaged in any physical activity. Pretty impressive, right?
So even though the original focus of the study was to evaluate how certain activities in a park setting might connect to emotional well-being, Hon Yuen, Ph.D., OTR/L, lead researcher and professor in the UAB Department of Occupational Therapy, said in a statement for the university's press release that, overall, it’s the experience of being in a park that can really improve emotional well-being, and not necessarily the physical activities you take part in while you’re there.
Although this particular study was relatively small, its findings match up with countless others that have also suggested nature is good for the soul. For instance, back in 1991, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that participants who watched a stress-inducing movie, followed by video footage of nature scenes, were able to recover quickly from their built-up anxiety. What’s more, according to research from the University of Utah and the University of Kansas, spending time in nature can boost your creativity by as much as 50 percent.
But even if you don't live super close to a park, spending time in nature in in any capacity can potentially yield some of the same benefits. So plug in your earphones, stream a podcast you've been meaning to catch up on, and take a walk around the block or a stroll through campus. Walking your dog up and down the street, or even just sitting in your backyard and sipping a cup of coffee, might suffice.
Bottom line: The main goal here is just to get outside for a few minutes of your day to soak in some sun. And remember, if the weather calls for clouds and rain, there's always fresh grass to smell, and an umbrella to keep you dry. A little dirt never hurt; evidently, it might just make you smile.