International day of happiness

Published on: 18 March 2015

An overview of our blue space research from ECEHH on Vimeo.

#InternationalDayofHappiness is upon us so we took a look at some research from the University of Exeter that shows living nearer to green spaces, such as parks, or by the coast can boost your physical health, and possibly make you happier.

Dr Mathew White and colleagues from the European Centre for the Environment and Human Health – part of University of Exeter Medical School - found that people had lower mental distress and higher life satisfaction in years when they were living in urban areas with larger amounts of greenspace. These conclusions were drawn using 18 years of data from more than 10,000 participants.

Extending this work by looking at individuals for whom there was full data from three years before and three years after a home relocation, Dr Ian Alcock and colleagues showed that a person’s mental health can increase significantly after moving to an urban area with more greenspace and, unlike other major life events, this improvement lasted for the full three years after the move.

Dr White explained: “These results were important because we were able to take into account factors like personality. We were looking at the same people as they moved in and out of green urban areas to see how it affected them; so we could be sure that it wasn’t just happier people moving to greener areas.“

Researchers have also used Census data to show that people who live closer to the coast report better health. A study led by the Centre’s expert in health geography, Dr Ben Wheeler, used data from the UK 2001 Census to demonstrate a small but significant increase in the general health status (which reflects both physical and mental health) of people who live by the coast.

Interestingly, this effect was greatest in the most socio-economically deprived areas of England, suggesting that the benefits of coastal living could help to reduce health inequalities.

Dr Wheeler explained: “Living near the coast can potentially promote physical activity, and provide space for these activities; it can also provide more opportunities for stress reduction, relaxation and more social contact.”

Dr Wheeler acknowledged that sometimes this research can feel like common sense.
He added: “Sometimes people question if we really need to do research which asks people if they’re happier at the seaside. But if we can establish and quantify the health benefits of these environments, we can provide powerful justification for their protection and our right to access them.”

The work from the Centre shows that good town planning could affect the happiness of the population. Dr Wheeler said: “Planning is one of the key processes through which our living environment is shaped.”

Dr White added: “Our research is helping to provide planners with the evidence base they need to justify incorporating green spaces into development projects but the questions we’re always asked are ‘what are these mental health benefits worth?’ and ‘how much greenspace does a person need?’. Sadly, we don’t know the answers to these questions yet but we are currently working towards a better understanding of these issues.”

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