Department of Economics

Happiness is greater in natural environments

What makes us happy and where are we most happy?

Links between wellbeing and environmental factors are of growing interest in psychology, health, conservation, economics, and more widely.

There is already plenty of evidence on the negative effects of living in an urban environment – stress, depression and higher rates of psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia. Yet there is limited evidence that green or natural environments are positive for physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Summary

Led by George MacKerron, this new and unique primary research study explores the relationship between momentary subjective wellbeing and individuals’ immediate environment within the UK.

The study aims to improve the understanding and measurement of the relationship between happiness and the natural environment.

Using a specially designed smartphone app, the study collects data on three key spatial and environmental indicators using the GPS location data: broad habitat or land cover type, weather conditions, and daylight status, alongside self ratings of happiness from 0 (not at all) -100 (extremely) and some important controls.

The data are analysed to establish the relationship of habitat type and other environmental variables to happiness self-ratings so as to gauge the influence of the natural environment on self-reported happiness.

Methodology

The researchers developed and applied an innovative data collection tool: a smartphone app that signals participants at random moments, presenting a brief questionnaire while using satellite positioning (GPS) to determine geographical coordinates.

The app, named Mappiness, was distributed via Apple's App Store, so participants were self-selecting. The reliance on participants with iPhones clearly restricts the sample's demographic profile (primarily relatively wealthy and young).

The app was used to collect over one million responses from more than 20,000 participants. Associating GPS response locations with objective spatial data, the researchers estimated a model relating land cover to subjective wellbeing, while controlling for weather, daylight, activity, companionship, location type, time, day, and any response trend.

Key findings

On average, study participants are significantly and substantially happier outdoors in all green or natural habitat types than they are in an urban environment.

This study provides a new line of evidence on links between nature and wellbeing, strengthening existing evidence of a positive relationship between subjective wellbeing and exposure to green or natural environments in daily life.

The results from this research have informed the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA).

The novel geo-located experience sampling methodology has great potential to provide new insights in a range of areas of interest to policymakers. For example, as a measure of the effects of environmental interventions on momentary wellbeing, to quantify and assess the impacts on wellbeing of environmental hazards or disasters, and to enhance citizen science projects.

Access the paper

MacKerron, George and Mourato, Susana (2013) Happiness is greater in natural environments. Global Environmental Change, 23 (5). pp. 992-1000. ISSN 0959-3780

To access the full version of this paper, please go to Sussex Research Online.

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