Scientists say if you do this outdoor activity, you will be a much happier person

It’s a piece of advice that’s recycled quite often. Feeling blue? Get outside, go for a walk, or maybe just stop and smell the roses. Spending some time in nature has long been linked to feeling better on an emotional and mental level. However, a new study says there’s a specific aspect of nature that’s especially important for humans to get a healthy dose of every now and then: wildness.

It definitely isn’t a new theory; dating way back to Henry David Thoreau’s 1854 classic Walden mankind has romanticized the simplicity and instinctiveness of experiencing the wild elements of true wilderness. Of course, since the 19th-century technology has improved at a rapid rate, and in 2020 most of us are far more disconnected from nature than any of our ancestors.

Sure, us city dwellers may be able to take a stroll through the local park once or twice a week, but is that really enough nature to fulfill our needs? According to researchers at the University of Washington, probably not. They’ve concluded that specifically experiencing the wild side of nature is vital to one’s overall mental and physical wellbeing. 

Humans, like every other living being on this planet, used to spend a whole lot more time outside surrounded by endless forests and every type of animal imaginable. As such, the wilderness is literally in our evolutionary history and DNA. Seeing and hearing wild animals close by, walking along a running river, being able to look around and see nothing but wilderness for as far as the eye can see; these are elements of nature that just can’t be experienced in a tiny pocket park or secluded green space.

“It was clear from our results that different kinds of nature can have different effects on people,” comments lead author Elizabeth Lev, a graduate student in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, in a press release. “The wilder areas in an urban park seem to be affording more benefits to people — and their most meaningful interactions depended on those relatively wild features.”

Researchers focused their work on Discovery Park, Seattle’s largest urban park, covering roughly 500 acres. This park, like so many other initiatives to incorporate more green spaces in urban areas, has faced a litany of bureaucratic roadblocks and development problems on its road to existence. Discovery Park’s advisory board actually approached the University of Washington for advice regarding which elements were most important and beneficial for visitors.

“We looked at Discovery Park, but this is about the entire planet,” explains senior author Peter Kahn, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences and psychology. “Everywhere, development is chipping away in wild areas. Humanity has caused so much destruction and there’s no stopping it — unless we stop. We’re trying to show that if you’re going to develop an area, you at least need to understand the human costs.”

A total of 320 local park-goers were surveyed for the project, with each being asked to write down a summary of their most meaningful interactions and experiences while visiting Discovery Park. All those submissions were then analyzed and separated into categories. For instance, the sentence “We sat and listened to the waves at the beach for a while” was grouped into two categories: “sitting at the beach” and “listening to waves.”

Over the course of their work, the researchers started to notice a pattern in the responses that they dubbed “nature language.” Essentially, about six categories connected to interacting with the vast park were named most often by the participants. These categories included coming upon wildlife, gazing out at a vast view, walking along water, and walking along a trail.

Moreover, across nearly all participants’ responses, the park’s vast wilderness was named as an important part of their meaningful experiences while visiting. Specific named examples of the park’s “wildness” were its high levels of biodiversity, large old trees, open spaces, sprawling views, and generally speaking, the opportunity the park afforded visitors to gain some much needed solitude and escape civilization for a few hours.

It goes without saying that we all can’t visit a large park every day of our lives. So, the next time you take a hike in a wild area or large national park, the study’s authors recommend taking note of the wild aspects of nature that particularly resonated with you. Then, try to recreate those experiences to a lesser degree during day-to-day life. Perhaps you enjoyed walking along a trail surrounded by large, old trees. In that case, they suggest finding a smaller, urban park during your lunch break and eating under a tree.

“We’re losing the language of interaction with nature and as we do, we also lose the cultural practice of these deep forms of interaction with nature, the wellsprings of human existence,” Kahn said. “We’re trying to generate a nature language that helps bring these human-nature interactions back into our daily lives. And for that to happen, we also need to protect nature so that we can interact with it.”

Just like everything else in life, moderation is key. No one is suggesting we all sell our apartments and move into the woods like Alexander Supertramp. That being said, if modern life has been dragging you down lately, a visit to your local state park next weekend may help you unwind.

The full study can be found here, published in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities.