An Environment for Happiness

I’m a third-generation Arizonan. I grew up in southern Arizona, and moved to Phoenix to raise my own family. There are a number of reasons why I love this state and have chosen to make it my home, but one huge factor is its easy access to incredible nature.  I love catching sunrises in the desert, backpacking year round, getting off the grid within 7 minutes of my house, etc.

The World Happiness Report for 2020 took an in-depth look at how our external environments influence happiness. The report examined the social, urban, and natural environments of the world’s countries and assessed the impact they had on the population’s reported happiness. Like previous years, Scandinavian countries topped the list (the U.S. came in at number 18).

Some key takeaways from the report are supported by my own experience living in Arizona:

– People prefer balanced natural and urban environments. Metro Phoenix has all the benefits of a massive urban city and is less than an hour away from nature in every cardinal direction and 7 minutes to a preserve.  Turns out, finding places to connect with nature in your home town is critical to your happiness.

– People enjoy a variety of land cover, as opposed to a single extreme. Arizona runs the gamut from dry desert to pine forests to red rocks, all within a few hours. Finding different places for you to get out of the Matrix is something to strive for…..even if you live in Gotham.

– Stress recovery is faster when in the natural environment. I’ve experienced this firsthand. When I was going through chemo, the first thing I did whenever I got out of the hospital was head to the mountains to hike. Nature is healing.

For me, getting off the grid is mandatory.  It’s where I’m happiest. How is your environment influencing your happiness?

See more below and check out the full report here.

Chapter 5: How Environmental Quality Affects Our Happiness

By Christian Krekel & George MacKerron

Green, Healthy, and Happy

Even short-term exposure to green is sufficient to unfold salutogenic effects. In a classical study, Ulrich (1984) studied the recovery records of surgical patients in a suburban Pennsylvania hospital between 1972 and 1981.[28] Some of the patients were – purely by chance – allocated to a room with a view of a natural setting, others to a room with a view of a brick wall. Patients facing a natural setting had shorter post-operative hospital stays, received fewer negative comments in nurses’ notes, and requested less medication. In a follow-up experiment, Ulrich et al. (1991) had 120 subjects first view a stressful film and then exposed them to videos of different natural and urban settings, measuring their self-reported affective and physiological states.[29] The authors find that stress recovery was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to natural rather than urban settings. Mechanisms include a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and that these changes are accompanied by sustained attention. Kaplan (2001) replicated the analysis in a real-world setting for the general population, studying views of natural settings from windows in private homes, and confirmed the positive well-being effects of visible, nearby nature.[30] Interestingly, people do not anticipate these effects: Nisbet and Zelenski (2011) show that people systematically underestimate the well-being benefits of nature, potentially failing to maximise their well-being by spending more time in natural settings.[31]

Natural Land, Scenic Beauty, and Happiness

Are people who live closer to nature happier? Sampling the happiness of more than 20,000 users of the smartphone app Mappiness, who contribute more than one million unique, geo-located data points, and leveraging data on land cover from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology’s Land Cover Map 2000, MacKerron and Mourato find that people living in the UK report the highest happiness when outdoors and in natural habitats relative to dense urban areas.[47] In particular, they are happiest when close to marine and coastal marginal areas; mountains, moors, and heathland; and woodland. Kopmann and Rehdanz show that this positive relationship holds in 31 European countries, and that people prefer “balanced” over “extreme” allocations of land; that is, they prefer more variety in natural land cover.[48] An important channel for the positive relationship between natural land and happiness may be a deep preference of people for nature, which may manifest itself in a preference for certain, more natural landscapes. In fact, Seresinhe et al., using crowdsourced data of ratings of over 200,000 photos of Great Britain and machine learning algorithms to evaluate the scenic beauty of images, show that natural features such as coasts, mountains, and natural canals as well as areas with more tree cover are rated as more scenic.[49] Scenic beauty, however, does not seem to be limited exclusively to natural environments but can also relate to the built environment.[50]