Shutterstock

It's (relatively) easy: Add green space.

Researchers have been studying the relationship between mental health and urban green space for years, but they haven’t always been able to make a causal connection between the two.

Now, a new study from researchers at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School shows that moving from a less-green urban environment to a more-green one can lead to lasting positive changes in mental well-being.

Human happiness is a slippery thing, and figuring out how to increase it is notoriously difficult. In the 1970s, a theory known as the "hedonic set-point" or, even more depressingly, the "hedonic treadmill," gained traction in the field of psychology. It posits that every person has a baseline level of happiness, and that while satisfaction may rise and fall temporarily along with life events such as winning the lottery or getting divorced, it will generally return to the same level, largely determined by genetics.

It's a rather grim vision, especially if you're not a "naturally" happy person. But it has been challenged in recent years. Some happiness researchers believe that "well-being set points can change under some conditions." This latest study, which followed 1,000 subjects over a five-year period using data from the British Household Panel Survey, suggests that an increase in the green space in a person’s surroundings might be one of those conditions.

The study, published in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology, looked at people’s mental well-being during the two years before a move and then during the three years after.

Ian Alcock, one of the researchers on the green-space study, summarized his group’s findings this way in the above video: "When people move to a greener urban area, they experience an immediate and sustained improvement in their mental health," he says. He notes that the observed effect differs from the quick but transient boost that, say, getting married can deliver. "Their mental health improves straightaway, and that improvement endures, at least for the three years that we were able to follow them."

Interestingly, the mental health of people moving from more-green to less-green areas sustained a drop in the time before the move, then returned to what was normal for them.

The researchers believe that their findings have direct implications for urban planners and investment in green space. "It suggests that new parks and urban corridors might have long-term benefits for communities," says Alcock.

In other words, building a park or garden won't just give a cheap honeymoon thrill to a city or town. Instead, it will keep delivering mental health faithfully for years to come.

Top image: Gromovataya/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    The Diverging Diamond Interchange Is Coming to a Road Near You

    Drivers may be baffled by these newfangled intersections, but they’re safer than traditional four-way stops.

  2. Workers in downtown London head to their jobs.
    POV

    How Cities Can Rebuild the Social Safety Net

    In an age of employment uncertainty and a growing income gap, urban America needs to find new ways to support its citizens.

  3. Environment

    Visualize the Path of the Eclipse With Live Traffic Data

    On Google Maps, a mass migration in progress.

  4. The Presidio Terrace neighborhood
    POV

    The Problem of Progressive Cities and the Property Tax

    The news that a posh San Francisco street was sold for delinquent taxes exposes the deeper issue with America’s local revenue system.

  5. A woman sits reading on a rooftop garden, with the dense city of Tokyo surrounding her.
    Solutions

    Designing a Megacity for Mental Health

    A new report assesses how Tokyo’s infrastructure affects residents’ emotional well-being, offering lessons for other cities.