Recent studies have shown how green spaces have a positive effect on our mental health, and now social media has provided more immediate proof.
A team from the University of Vermont, US, found that visitors to urban parks use happier words and express less negativity on Twitter than they do before their visit.
And their elevated mood doesn’t end when they leave; in fact, the researchers found the positive shift in mood lasts for up to four hours.
“This is the first study that uses Twitter to examine how user sentiment changes before, during, and after visits to different types of parks,” says lead researcher Aaron Schwartz. “The greener parks show a bigger boost.”
The findings are published in the journal People and Nature.
For three months, the researchers studied hundreds of tweets per day that people posted from 160 parks in San Francisco.
“We found that, yes, across all the tweets, people are happier in parks,” says Schwartz, “but the effect was stronger in large regional parks with extensive tree cover and vegetation.”
Smaller neighbourhood parks showed a smaller spike in positive mood and mostly-paved civic plazas and squares showed the least mood elevation.
In other words, the researchers suggest, it’s not just getting out of work or being outside that brings a positive boost: greener areas with more vegetation have the biggest impact. It’s notable that one of the words that shows the biggest uptick in use in tweets from parks is “flowers”.
For the study, they used an online instrument known as a hedonometer, which has been gathering and analysing billions of tweets for more than a decade.
It works with a body of about 10,000 common words that have been scored by a pool of volunteers for what the scientists call their “psychological valence” – a kind of measure of each word’s emotional temperature. “Happy” ranks 8.30 out of nine, for example, and “trapped” 3.08.
From this pool, Schwartz and colleagues fished out tweets from over 4500 users who geotagged their location – telling researchers what tweets came from which parks.
Overall, they found that tweets posted from the parks were happier by a dramatic 0.23 points.
“While we don’t address causality in our study, we do find that negative language – like ‘not,’ ‘no,’ ‘don’t,’ ‘can’t’ – decreased in the period immediately after visits to urban parks,” says co-author Chris Danforth, “offering specific linguistic markers of the mood boost available outside”.
The study also shows that the use of first-person pronouns – “I” and “me” – drops off dramatically in parks, perhaps indicating “a shift from individual to collective mental frame,” the scientists write.
The researchers hope the study highlights the simple fact that people tend to be happier in nature, and that this might “help public health officials and governments make plans and investments”, as Schwartz puts it.
Amelia Nichele is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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