• Robb G. Best

Pandemic Blues? Try Nature

By this point, we're no doubt all familiar with the lowered mood associated with life during the COVID-19 pandemic.The combination of isolation, a lack of any social events, and feeling stuck at home can certainly take its toll. However, two recent studies suggest that getting outside and taking in some nature can provide a much-needed boost.

One new study examines the role of isolation, daily screen time (phone, TV, and computer), and exposure to nature on relative levels of happiness during this particular moment in history. The research, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, is a collaboration between Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in the UK, the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Austria, and Perdana University in Malaysia.

The researchers selected a group of 286 adults and asked them to assess their relative level of happiness at three random times per day for 21 days. (This experience sampling method, or ESM, is used in these kinds of studies rather than having participants recall their happiness later in order to decrease memory-related biases.) This study was carried out in April 2020, when Austrian participants were on a relatively strict lockdown, only allowed to leave their homes for specific activities, like work and exercise.

The results suggested that people were happier when they were outdoors. On the other hand, higher amounts of screentime or loneliness were both associated with lower happiness levels. Interestingly, the negative impact loneliness had on happiness was lessened when the participants were outside.

Said co-lead author Viren Swami, Professor of Social Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, "Our results are important in this context because they show that being able to spend time outdoors under conditions of lockdown has a beneficial impact on psychological wellbeing. 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."

Good news on that front: another study suggests that people are taking the time to appreciate nature noticeably more than they were before. This finding is based on online surveys from roughly 3200 people in Vermont during the state's "Stay home, stay safe" executive order (announced in May 2020). The survey showed that all kinds of outdoor activities were being enjoyed with more frequency, including watching wildlife (up 64%), gardening (57%), relaxing alone outside (58%), taking photos or doing other art in nature (54%), and, taking (masked and distanced) walks (70%).

“These data are like a treasure chest of the pandemic moment: a record of how people have been thinking about their relationship with the rest of the world in a time of great upheaval,” says the study's senior author, Rachelle Gould of the University of Vermont.

There is, however, a caveat. The Vermont study also found that women were significantly more likely to seek solace in nature than men. Looking at the six most common nature-related pursuits in the study, women were between 1.7 times more likely to have increased their participation (gardening) to 2.9 times more likely (walking). Men generally didn't report that they had spent more time doing nature activities than before. The study authors wondered if women had a greater need for pandemic stress relief, and were thus more predisposed to looking elsewhere for comfort. However, they agree that more research is needed.

No matter your gender, the research suggests you can give a stale mood a boost by getting outside and getting some fresh air. Just another benefit to stopping and smelling the roses--in some cases, literally.

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