There is a wood near me that I walk or run through most days. Even on a wet winter’s day I get pleasure from being among the trees, though to be honest, when I am running, I wear headphones to distract myself from the pain in my lungs.
But perhaps I should be spending more time appreciating my surroundings by cultivating a sense of ‘awe’. Doing that might increase my sense of joy and even my ‘smile intensity’. Or at least that was the findings of a study I recently came across, published in the journal Emotion.
I have always assumed that spending time in nature is good for me, but a couple of years ago I decided to see if there were any measurable benefits. The BBC series, Trust Me, I’m A Doctor, which I present, teamed up with researchers from the University of Edinburgh. We recruited some volunteers and then randomly assigned them to either a control group, or a group who were asked to spend a couple of hours a week in nature.
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The second group were encouraged to spend their lunch hour in parks, but were asked to sit, relax, or gently walk around, not to walk briskly or do any vigorous exercise, as we were trying to see what benefits there might be from being outdoors, rather than the benefits of exercise. At the start and end, our volunteers filled out a questionnaire that assessed things like positive emotion, arousal and stress.
We also measured their stress by recording their levels of cortisol, the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone. After just three weeks we saw improvements in their cortisol levels, as well as a 30 per cent drop in perceived stress. Surprisingly, the weather didn’t seem to make much difference to the stress-busting benefits, with one volunteer saying he sat outside during a hailstorm.
So we showed that just being outside, preferably somewhere green, seems to be good for your mental health. But does cultivating a sense of ‘awe’ add to it?
To find out, scientists from the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, divided 60 volunteers into two groups. One group were asked to go for a 15-minute walk once a week for eight weeks, and to spend their time thinking about holidays, work, children, anything ‘internal’. The other group were also asked to walk, but to notice the colour of the leaves, the pattern of light on the ground, anything that might induce a feeling of ‘awe’.
They filled in questionnaires before and after, and it was found that those who were paying more attention to their surroundings got more benefit from their walks.
A rather charming element of the experiment is that the researchers asked the volunteers to take selfies at the end of each walk, and they found those doing the ‘awe’ walks had smiles that grew more intense as the study proceeded. Time to hug a few more trees.
- This article first appeared in issue 357 of BBC Science Focus – find out how to subscribe here