People are talking about mental health more than ever before, sharing their stories of struggles with depression and anxiety to help destigmatize the topic. Still, despite the recent increase in honest conversation, many people don’t know what to do to improve their mood and boost their mental health.
The good news is that extensive research over the years has shown one key habit that leads to consistently good outcomes for mental health. Better yet, it’s not expensive or difficult – in fact, it’s free and surprisingly easy.
Science Says: Try This Strong Mental Health Booster
What’s the secret to better mental health? Spending time outdoors.
Seriously, that’s it! Studies show that spending time in nature and increasing your exposure to natural light boosts mental health.
Here’s what the research says.
How Natural Light Affects Your Mood
Exposure to natural sunlight is associated with better mood, less anxiety and depression, and better cognitive outcomes. A few different biological mechanisms contribute to this.
For one, increased exposure to natural sunlight is associated with increased production of serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate mood and emotional states. Empirical evidence suggests that sunlight on the skin directly influences the production of serotonin, which in turn affects mood. This is one likely reason anxiety, mood disorders, and other psychiatric disorders are worse in the winter when there’s less sunlight. One study found that the rate of serotonin production in 101 healthy men was directly related to the duration of bright sunlight, providing more evidence that serotonin production is related to mood and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Sunlight also affects the body’s circadian rhythms, via light entering the eye and hitting the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a part of the brain that’s involved in generating circadian rhythms. The body’s circadian rhythm is in turn linked to sleep patterns, mood, and mental health. Exposure to sunlight is not only associated with depression but also with cognitive outcomes. Using data from 16,800 people, researchers found that when sunlight exposure was low, rates of cognitive impairment in people with depression were higher.
Finally, exposing your skin to sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is linked to mental health, mood, and depression, though a review of the scientific literature is inconclusive about the directionality of the connection. However, one study of 185 women found an inverse relationship between levels of vitamin D and depressive symptoms and suggested possible biological mechanisms, including regulation of serotonin production and effects on immunity and the stress response.
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How Green Spaces Make You Happier
It’s not just exposure to sunlight that improves your mood and mental health through various physiological mechanisms; increased exposure to nature and greenery is beneficial, too.
A 2018 paper from the UK provides an overview of the evidence for “green care,” therapy through exposure to gardening and greenery. Simply looking at plants can reduce stress, fear, anger, and sadness. Living in an area with a higher proportion of green space is linked to lower anxiety, depression, and stress. Gardening in particular is believed to be so effective at improving mood and mental health because it combines increased exposure to sunlight and greenery with social interaction and physical activity.
Similarly, a 2017 British paper looks at the benefits of green space, which can include anything from an urban park to an untamed nature reserve. The idea of providing green spaces for people in increasingly urban environments became popular in the 19th century and could be an accessible and cost-effective solution to improving mental health at the population level.
Spending time outdoors is also in our nature. For most of our time on this planet, our ancestors have lived outdoors and have only recently begun spending the vast majority of waking hours inside. The same 2017 paper cited above posits that “individuals’ desire for contact with nature is not just the result of a romanticized view of nature, but is an important adaptive process, which appears to aid optimum functioning.”
Forest Bathing & Why You Should Try It
The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” takes the idea of spending time in nature and combines it with mindfulness. A 2017 review of the scientific literature shows that the practice, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, is associated with less stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as a number of physical benefits including improved immune system function, stronger respiratory system, and more.
What makes forest bathing different from a walk in a park is that it takes place under a canopy of trees so you’re surrounded by nature. Here are the basics of forest bathing:
- Stay mindful. Pay attention to everything around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you sense on your skin? Live in the moment and take nature in using all your senses. In this way, forest bathing is like a moving meditation.
- Stay quiet. This isn’t the time for a gab session with your pal, but an opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, quietly.
- Walk, don’t run, don’t hike. Hiking is about getting to a destination, going from A to B. Forest bathing is about experiencing nature in the moment, so the destination is not important. Walk slowly so you have time to take in everything around you, and feel free to stop if you want to examine something more closely.
- Put down the phone. Resist the urge to interact with your phone, camera, or anything else that may distract you from the present moment.
Get Outside: Tips for Building an Outdoor Routine
Spending time outdoors could be just one more thing to add to your to-do list. Or it could be a fun, easy escape from your normal day-to-day.
But how? Make it more likely that you’ll actually get out and reap the benefits of more sunshine, greenery, and nature by setting realistic goals, tracking your progress, and finding an accountability partner or group of friends to make it more fun.
Then schedule outdoor activities into your calendar. One of the best ways to ensure you spend more time outdoors on a regular basis is to take up a sport or pursue a hobby that’s mostly outdoors, like:
- Gardening or urban farming
- Nature photography
- Nature drawing/painting
If you can’t commit to something so regular, look for opportunities to add outdoor activities to your week, such as:
- Forest bathing, hiking, or nature walks
- A quick walk on your work lunch break (with or without your coworkers)
- A picnic in the park or other al fresco dining
- Outdoor concerts, shows, festivals, and farmers’ markets
- Playground time with the kids
- Time at the beach
- Yoga, tai chi, or meditation class outside
- Doing yard work (instead of hiring a landscaping company)
- Reading, working, or studying on your porch, patio, stoop, fire escape, roof, or whatever outdoor space you have
It’s clear that spending time outside is good for mood and mental health. If you struggle with stress and symptoms of depression or anxiety, make it a point to spend more time outdoors. It’s a simple, easy, and free way to help your mental health.
If you feel your mental health struggles go beyond mild mood dysregulation, make an appointment to speak with a therapist or doctor. There are many other ways to improve mental health, and a healthcare professional can help you find the right treatment plan for you.