As a nation, we seem to be more depressed and anxious now than in the past. Whether that’s due to increasingly demanding jobs, the need to juggle additional responsibilities, our constant reliance on technology, or the hostile political climate, many Americans are realizing that their overall mental health and well-being has taken a bit of a dive. What makes it even harder is that many of these daily obligations are inescapable. Most people can’t afford to up and quit their jobs, neglect their families, completely detach from social media, or check out from what’s happening in the news cycle. But the solution to relieving one’s stress and depression could be found outdoors in nature.
Nearly one-fifth of American adults report struggling with some form of mental illness, with more than 16 million adults experiencing depression on a yearly basis. Around two-thirds of depressed individuals do not seek out professional help, and patient mental health services account for only 5% of all medical care spending in the United States. These numbers are extremely concerning, especially for those living in underserved, urban areas.
Although 52% of urban respondents surveyed said they’d like to see more green areas in their cities, those spots can be hard to come by in many major metropolises. But many times, there’s something else these cities have a lot of: vacant lots. In Philadelphia, researchers wanted to explore what effect turning these vacant lots into green spaces might have on the general population. Although the team expected to see some mental and emotional improvements, even they were surprised by the impact their experiment had.
More than 540 vacant lots throughout Philadelphia were selected for the study and were segmented into 110 different clusters. Each cluster was randomly assigned one of three actions — a greening intervention, a trash cleanup, or no intervention at all. Those that underwent the greening intervention had teams from the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society assigned to remove trash, level land, plant new trees and grass, and install a fence. Clusters that had the trash cleanup had all garbage removed and existing grass mowed.
In the 18 months before and after the renovation, researchers surveyed more than 300 residents who lived in the area to find out how depressed, nervous, or hopeless they felt. The research team found that planting grass and trees in formerly empty lots had positive effects on residents within a quarter-mile radius. In fact, they felt 40% less depressed overall. And in neighborhoods that fell below the poverty line, feelings of depression dropped by 68%. Those who lived near lots that received only trash cleanup or no intervention at all did not experience these positive effects.
The results support the already existing evidence that shows spending time in and around green spaces can improve feelings of depression and stress, and that areas with a lack of parks and outdoor infrastructure may be linked to increased mental health issues.
But spending time in nature can improve our physical health, too. These sentiments are expressed on a global scale, thanks to results from a new study that involved data from 20 different countries and more than 290 million people. The results of that study — which looked at the exposure to green space and its effect on physical health issues like high blood pressure, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, preterm birth, quality of sleep, and even premature death. Exposure to green space was also found to reduce levels of salivary cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone. While the exact reasons for these health benefits aren’t yet known, researchers hope that the data will inspire people to spend more time outside and that policymakers will keep the results in mind when creating legislature and developing funding for parks and other green spaces, particularly in vulnerable communities.
On a smaller scale, bringing the outdoors inside can improve our moods, too. While 86% of companies cite their employees’ happiness levels have increased due to worker recognition programs, many workers say that their overall satisfaction with their workplace increases if they’re surrounded by plants. If you’re immersed in nature, your stress levels will probably go down, which is welcome news for the 51% of employees who say they’re unproductive at work due to stress. But even the colors we’re surrounded by can make a difference here. Color psychology has found that green enhances our moods and can make us feel calmer. So if you can’t actually work outside or take a break for a walk, you should at least put a few potted plants on and around your desk. Of course, employers who prioritize landscaped spaces and bring plants into other areas of the office will also probably find their workers are happier and less anxious, too.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed by life, you might be tempted to curl into a ball on the couch and escape into your favorite TV show. But you’ll probably fare better if you walk around outside for a bit or sit on a bench in the park for a while.