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Go Outside and Be Happy

By Ned Ketyer, MD


The term “nature-deficit disorder” has been used by researchers to describe the lack of connectedness that humans — and especially children — feel about the natural world and other living beings sharing the environment. It appears that when children and adults fail to make, and then sustain that bond with nature, a variety of health conditions can result, including high blood pressure, obesity, and mental illness.

We examined the potential health benefits of urban green spaces for adults who are given the opportunity to soak in the great outdoors on The PediaBlog a year ago:

There may be no better way, research suggests, of lowering stress, improving feelings of well-being and preventing mental illness than spending time outdoors. And it doesn’t take much time to achieve those benefits, either. About 20 minutes spent in a park-like setting, surrounded by nature (grass, trees, birds, and such), is all you need to begin feeling better about your health and yourself, and improve some important vital signs like blood pressure and heart rate. A recent study finds that exercising isn’t even necessary while soaking in the great outdoors in order to realize the health benefits.

Now, new research shows just how important it is for children’s social and cognitive development to form bonds with nature, especially if this younger generation is to succeed in reversing environmental degradation and holding back the climate crisis that previous generations have caused. A study published in last month’s issue of Frontiers of Psychology surveyed nearly 300 Mexican elementary school children between the ages of 9 and 12 to measure the link between nature and happiness. David G. Allan and Kristen Rogers describe results which shouldn’t surprise anyone:

The researchers found children who felt connected to nature — feeling pleasure when seeing wildflowers and animals, hearing sounds of nature — engaged in altruism, or actions that helped other people. These children actively cared for the environment by recycling, reusing objects and saving water. They were also more likely to say they believed in equality among sexes, races and socioeconomic conditions. Finally, these children scored high on a happiness scale, too.

The reason the researchers undertook their investigation was based on a sense of urgency:

Explaining their motivation for conducting the research, the authors wrote: “Given the environmental problems humanity is currently facing, and considering that the future of the planet lies in the hands of children and their actions, research about the determinants of sustainable behaviors in children become more relevant; nonetheless, studies on this topic focusing on children are scarce.”

Kashmira Gander hands out the prescription adults in this world need to take:

Lead author Dr Laura Berrera-Hernández of the Sonora Institute of Technology (ITSON) said in a statement: “Parents and teachers should promote children to have more significant contact or exposure to nature, because our results indicate that exposure to nature is related to the connection with it, and in turn, with sustainable behaviors and happiness.”

In the ultimate display of social distancing, Americans have already begun to self-quarantine themselves against the COVID-19 pandemic. Now would be a good time to remember, as we temporarily fray the interpersonal connections with each other, that a walk in the woods surrounded by nature always does a soul good. There’s a good chance it will make our kids happy, too.

As one of the founding physicians of Pediatric Alliance, PC, Dr. Ketyer served as its president from 1997-2004. He has been practicing general pediatrics at Pediatric Alliance since 1990.

Article originally published on the PediaBlog.



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