Do parks boost long-term mental health?

Imagine that you’ve just moved from a dreary, concrete-filled neighborhood to an area near a lush park. Most likely your mood would improve — but for how long?

According to a new study, the positive effects of living near green space don’t wear off after awhile. Instead, the authors say, greenery offers “sustained mental health gains” that last at least a few years.

Being in nature can reduce stress, and previous research has suggested that people who move to greener areas enjoy a big improvement in life satisfaction. But the study authors wanted to find out whether those changes had staying power. For example, marriages and promotions tend to boost happiness only temporarily. Other positive life changes, such as receiving therapy for depression, improve long-term mental health.

The team examined survey data from 1,064 people in the UK who had moved between 1991 and 2008. About half had moved to a neighborhood with more green space such as parks and gardens, and the other half had moved to a less green area. The data included participants’ evaluations of their moods for two years before and three years after the move.

The lucky people who moved to a greener area had better mental health in the three years following the move, the team reports in Environmental Science & Technology. “What we’ve found suggests that the mental health benefits of green space are not only immediate, but sustainable over long periods of time,” said co-author Mathew White of the University of Exeter Medical School, UK, in a press release. For urban planners, that means that building parks could be a sound long-term investment in the community’s happiness.

Oddly, people who moved to less green areas didn’t suffer from more negative moods after the move. Instead, their mental health worsened the year before the move, then bounced back to its previous level once they had settled into their new home. Scientists will need to do more research to figure out why that’s the case, the authors say. Roberta Kwok | 7 January 2014

Source: Alcock, I. et al. 2013. Longitudinal effects on mental health of moving to greener and less green urban areas. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es403688w.

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