Are Outdoorsy People Happier?

Storyteller

Matt Van Swol

...and what the research says

For the past year and a half, I’ve decided to live my life differently. Starting in March of 2016, I decided to spend less time inside and more time outside. Granted, I work a 9-5 job like most people so I have had to get creative and motivate myself. I've started taking short walks every couple of hours outside. Nothing long, just 5 minutes or so walking around and then back to my desk. I got a dog which forced me to at least go outside of my apartment a minimum of 3 times a day. I bought a cheap convertible and every drive home from work (weather permitting) I take the top off and enjoy the open road. I started traveling to more countries, road-tripping to the mountains on weekends, and using The Outbound to explore and create adventures closer to home. I know I am a happier person today than I was two years ago, but is that true for everyone? Are outdoorsy people happier?

My experience is not uncommon. In fact, to my complete surprise, it’s actually the norm! Research shows that people who spend less time indoors and more time in nature are happier than those who claim to be “homebodies.” Almost exactly a year ago, the University of Derby in the UK performed a social study called, “The 30 Days Wild” campaign in which they challenged people to do something wild once a day for 30 days. After those 30 days were over, the people who participated shared that it was people’s connection to nature and doing things in nature that created a significant increase in happiness and health. Studies also show that people who spend more time outside experience greater self esteem, have a more positive body image, experience less stress (even in the exact same same job as their colleagues), increased memory retention, are kinder and more generous…and the list goes on an on. Study after study shows that when people are forced to spend more time outside, their life improves…dramatically. So why doesn't everyone do it?

Honestly, I think most of us are tired and overwhelmed from our normal daily lives and we view nature through a lens of “work” and not “rest”. When someone tells me to “get outside” I often equate that with a strenuous activity like mountain biking, running, or rock climbing. While I do enjoy those activities, on most work days, I am just flat out exhausted and don’t want to do anything I see as requiring effort. Perhaps that’s part of the problem, perhaps we see everything outside of a screen as “an activity” and not as rest. Perhaps we avoid what we so desperately need the most, because we see the outdoors as a place of stress and not a place of rest.

But what struck me most about a lot of these studies, is that surprisingly few actually required participants to perform any activity at all while being outside. In fact, the vast majority of participants simply stood or sat outside for the time required and still experienced health and happiness increases. As a scientist, this makes little sense to me, but as a human being…I get it. I’ve felt that freedom and that joy and it truly has changed me into a happier and healthier person. As much as I love adventuring, photography, and flying drones…I also love just sitting by a river, closing my eyes, and listening to its soothing babbling in the summer. I can’t really explain it and I can’t really prove it, but I feel it and want you to feel it too. So get outside this summer and force yourself to rest outdoors. 

Published: June 14, 2017

Matt Van SwolStoryteller

Matt Van Swol is a self-taught landscape photographer, writer, and nuclear scientist for the US Department of Energy. After personally struggling with depression for many years, he is passionate about showing others t...

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