Taking a walk outside is a tried and true mood booster and stress reliever. But a lot of us don’t have the luxury of heading outdoors every time we feel sad or overwhelmed—particularly if we’re at work.
That’s why this is such good news: A new study from the University of California, Berkeley and BBC Earth shows that we can harness the mental health benefits of going outside and experiencing nature by simply watching wildlife videos.
UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has long studied the psychological and physical effects of nature on humans. He teamed up with BCC Earth for the Real Happiness Project, surveying more than 7,500 people in the U.S., U.K., India, Singapore, Australia and South Africa before and after they watched clips of nature documentary “Planet Earth II.” They also watched clips of news coverage and “Game of Thrones” for comparison.
Three of the study’s findings jumped out to Keltner, he said.
First of all, “not surprisingly, you feel more awe and wonder” watching the nature clips than watching “Game of Thrones” or the news, he said. “Secondly, you get this overall boost in a lot of overall positive emotions”—for example, the clips made the study subjects feel more happy, content and grateful afterward than the other types of videos did, Keltner said.
The research team also mapped the facial expressions of the people watching the videos. The nature videos inspired happy facial responses. The most notable response people had watching “Game of Thrones” and the news was fear.
Watching a short video could be an affordable alternative to costly and time-consuming ways we try to harness happiness.
“We spend a lot of money trying to boost happiness,” he said. “We go on retreats and we go to intensive gratitude workshops, and here with a little film you get it.”
But possibly the most stunning finding was how the videos impacted young adults, he said. Pretty much everyone was positively impacted by the nature videos, but young adults got the biggest boost—especially when it came to stress reduction. That’s huge, Keltner said, because “lot of young people are really stressed out.” And one-fifth of the young adult participants said they weren’t getting outside regularly.
“I have two late teenage daughters and I see how stressed out they are… and we know that empirically, (but) what this study showed was the benefits of viewing ‘Planet Earth II’ were bigger for young people,” he said.
That struck me thinking about this next generation (that’s) super immersed in technology and social media, here’s a simple way they can get some joy.”
“Ultimately that’s the tougher question,” Keltner said.
This study only compared nature videos to other types of footage, but future research could compare the effects of videos to actually being in nature.
“My hunch is its not quite as robust or enduring as those techniques,” he said. “But what is striking to me is this is stuff you can access quickly. If you’re at home at night and its raining you can choose to watch it instead of disturbing news content and it does give you this burst of wonder and joy.”
Need a break? Check out videos from “Nature” on PBS.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.