A new study, which included over 1,000 participants, is one of the first to examine the long-term effects of green spaces on mental health (Alcock et al., 2014).
People in the study were followed over five years, in which time some moved to greener urban areas and some to less green urban areas.
The results showed that, on average, people who moved to greener urban areas felt an immediate improvement in their mental health.
This boost could still be measured fully three years after they moved.
For those who moved to less green areas, the pattern wasn’t quite what you’d expect.
Instead people suffered a drop in mental health even before they moved–but this recovered to its previous levels over time.
The study controlled for factors that might have been associated with the move. For example, moving to a worse neighbourhood might have been brought about by work problems. But, when employment, along with education and income, were taken into account, the effects were still present.
The lead author Ian Alcock said:
“We’ve shown that individuals who move to greener areas have significant and long-lasting improvements in mental health. These findings are important for urban planners thinking about introducing new green spaces to our towns and cities, suggesting they could provide long term and sustained benefits for local communities.”
It’s fascinating that the boost to mental health is sustained over a relatively long period of time.
We might expect that people would get used to their new surroundings and then their mental health would drift back to its previous levels.
This is typically what happens when people get a pay increase. Initially they are happier, but they soon get used to the extra income and their overall level of happiness falls back to its previous level.
We don’t know exactly what it is about greener urban areas that causes these sustainable gains in happiness, but it’s probably no coincidence that:
- One study has found that simply looking at a picture of nature is enough to improve cognition (see: Memory Improved 20% by Nature Walk).
- Another has found that outdoor activities have the strongest restorative effect on our mental health (see: Happiness is Right Outside).
Image credit: Trey Ratcliff