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Research Report: Boost Happiness and Wellbeing by Getting Outside

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

The shelter-in-place guidelines that have been in effect for millions of people in the U.S. since March take their toll. Evidence shows an increase in the symptoms of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, as well as an increase in binge-drinking, consumption of recreational drugs, and opioid-related overdose deaths. Over the past year, we’ve published dozens of articles on the effects of lockdown on teenagers with mental health and/or alcohol/substance use disorder. This article examines something equally important, but of a more general nature: the effect of shelter in place orders on happiness.

In particular, we’ll discuss the results of a study performed in Austria during their strict shelter-in-place period last April. Citizens were restricted from non-essential outdoor activity, with the exception of things like shopping for food, visiting the doctor, and exercising. The study asked a simple question:

“How does being outdoors affect the self-reported levels of happiness for people under strict shelter-in-place orders?”

We’re curious because exercising outdoors is one of the few activities that remain available to people that feel like or resemble the way things were before the coronavirus pandemic arrived and, for lack of a better phrase, changed everything about our lives.

We’ve published articles on how to cope from virtually every angle: how to help your kids with virtual school, how to manage working from home yourself, how to support friends during the pandemic, how to handle the holidays during the pandemic, and more.

In almost every article, we stress the importance of getting outside as much as possible. We know getting outside improves our physical and mental health. This new study from Austria offers evidence on how this may affect a specific aspect of our mental health: our overall level of happiness.

About the Study

A group of mental health researchers understood, from studying decades of existing data on the effect of loneliness and isolation on psychological and emotional wellbeing, that shelter-in-place orders related to the coronavirus pandemic could result in higher levels of loneliness and isolation than many people were accustomed to.

Evidence on loneliness and isolation shows that they can lead to increases in:

  • Depressive symptoms
  • Anxiety
  • Severe stress

Another vein of data that intrigued the researchers was described in studies conducted during the early stages of the pandemic that showed the following:

  • Social distancing increased subjective feelings of loneliness in older adults in some countries
  • Social distancing increased subjective feelings of loneliness in younger adults in other countries

One more set of data the researchers sought to explore was the effect of screen time on mental health during the pandemic. The evidence of interest to them included:

  • Studies showing screen time during the pandemic increased by 30%
  • Studies showing that in pre-pandemic times, more screen time often correlated to decreased self-reported measures of mental health
  • Research showing that early in shelter-in-place and social distancing periods, increased screen time correlated with decreased loneliness

To examine these questions – whether being outside, being younger or older, or more screen time – have a positive or negative impact on subjective happiness, researchers created a study using an approach known as the experience sampling method (ESM). ESM is a unique new way to approach research. Here’s how it works: study participants agree to stay connected to researchers through smartphone or email and respond to specific questions about their current mental health at both random and predetermined times during the study period.

Here are the questions researchers asked 286 participants three times a day during the three weeks of the study.

The Social Distancing Happiness Questionnaire

  1. How many known persons are currently around you (within 15 feet)?
  2. How many unknown persons are currently around you (within 15 feet)?
  3. Do you feel lonely right now? (Participants answered on a scale of 0-100, where “0” meant “not at all lonely” and “100” meant “very lonely”)
  4. Are you currently inside or outside a building?
  5. How happy are you right now?” (Participants answered on a scale of 0-100, where “0” meant “not at all happy” and “100” meant “very happy”)
  6. How much time did you spend in front of a screen today?

Now let’s see how the study participants responded.

The Effect of Being Outdoors During Shelter-in-Place: Results

The researchers hypothesized the following:

“…being outdoors [will] be associated with higher wellbeing, whereas experiencing greater loneliness and greater screen time would be associated with lower wellbeing…we also examined interactive effects with age.”

Here’s what they found:

  • Wellbeing correlated negatively with loneliness
    • The more loneliness a person reported, the lower their reported wellbeing
  • Wellbeing correlated negatively with screen time
    • The more screen time a person reported, the lower their reported wellbeing
  • Wellbeing correlated positively with being outdoors
    • The more time outdoors a person reported, the higher their reported wellbeing
  • Loneliness correlated positively with higher screen time
    • The more screen time a person reported, the higher their reported loneliness
  • Screen time correlated positively with time indoors
    • The more time a person reported spending indoors, the more screen time they reported
  • Older age correlated negatively with screen time, positively with outdoor time, and positively with wellbeing

These experimental observations confirm almost every aspect of the initial hypothesis. They found no statistically significant correlations or interactions between age, outdoor time, and screen time, other than the data that indicate that older age correlates negatively with screen time, i.e. older people spent less time on screen during the three-week experimental period than younger people.

Takeaways for Parents: You’re Right – Being Outside Helps

Parents raised in the 70s love to tell sentimental stories about being kicked out of their houses by their parents in the morning and admonished not to return before dark for “anything but lunch or a broken bone.”

On non-school days, of course.

The idea was that spending all day outside was good for kids on all levels.

What this study from Austria tells us is something similar.

During the coronavirus pandemic, with its travel restrictions, social distancing guidelines, and other behavioral limits in place, being outside is one of the best things we can do for our overall wellbeing. We can extrapolate more from the data than that, though. The data tell us that regardless of your age, if you spend more time outside, near people (socially distanced), and less time indoors, looking at screens, the more likely you are to be happy and experience a sense of overall wellbeing.

This is important for parents and families to understand as we move into 2021. With the arrival and distribution of several vaccines, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, our country as a whole is not done with social distancing regulations. Nor are strict rules on crowd size and indoor events a thing of the past. And some areas are still under, or have reinstated, shelter-in-place orders. However, almost all areas allow and encourage spending time outdoors for exercise and recreational activity.

Now we have data indicating that during the pandemic and all the associated behavioral modifications it requires for the greater good, being outside is one thing that, statistically speaking, is likely to increase our happiness and wellbeing.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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