One of the world’s top social science universities, The London School of Economics and Social Policy (LSE), has joined the digital scientific community in harnessing the power of mobile apps to study human behaviour. The “Mappiness” app, created by Dr George MacKerrona of Sussex University and Dr Susana Mourato of the LSE, mapped the top habitats for optimum wellbeing using iPhone technology.
21,947 people downloaded the iPhone app which not unlike a digital mum, prompted participants for answers to their whereabouts, the company they were keeping and what they were doing. In addition, the app asked for a rating on how they felt; tired, happy or anxious.
Twice a day at random and over a 6 month period, participants were beeped to plot the location as users coordinates were recorded via satellite positioning, habitat in reporting whether they were inside, outside, in a park, a barren landscape or an office and also feeling: users scored their subjective wellbeing from 1 (not at all) to 100 (extremely) for happy, awake and tired.
Robust as it was regular, the app was primed to ensure that the happy scores generated by green spaces were not confused with the pleasures derived from friends and family by accounting for activity, company and whether the activity was work related or recreational.
With 123, 8888 responses, there was plenty of data to play to whittle down the component happiness.
Whatever people were doing, they were happier outside. Although perhaps not surprising in itself, Professor George Mackenna points out that quantifying happiness is the really exciting aspect of the Mappiness app project, “there really aren’t a lot of surprises: it’s all very intuitive, so the exciting thing is to be able to use quantitative evidence to (a) prove that these effects are real and (b) compare how big they are.”
The belief that being outside improves our wellbeing has been long held, but before now there has been limited quantitative research until now to prove this. The sample size of 1,138,481 responses from 21,947 participants is believed to be the largest ever achieved by an Experience Sampling Method (ESM).
Three factors were identified to pinpoint why outdoor habitats improve our physical and mental health:
1 > Pathways
The existence of direct pathways known as “biolphilia” bring about stress reduction to the nervous system. Biolphilia has its roots in evolution; an affinity with nature and living organisms in general is an adaption to our historic reliance on natural environments.
2 > Environment “bads”
A natural environment is less likely to house environmental “bads” such as noise and air pollution than urban environments. This freedom to enjoy optimal health directly creates a cause for increased happiness and reported wellbeing.
3 > Recreation
Outside spaces naturally encourage recreational activities that are good for physical and mental well being. Sports, games, walking and socialising with others are all relaxing recreational pursuits that contribute to optimum health.
When outdoors, every habitat type except inland bare ground is associated with higher happiness levels than the inside, urban type. Marine and coastal areas are the happiest locations, with responses approximately 6 points higher than continuous urban environments on the 0 – 100 scale. The difference between the happiness in being inside or outside is equal to the difference between the happiness of attending an exhibition or doing housework.
All other green or natural environment types including mountains, moors, and heathland, freshwater, wetlands and woodland, grasslands, and farmland – are between 2.7 and 1.8 points happier than continuous urban environments. Suburban or rural developed environments are a little under one point happier.
To take part in the research, participants needed an iPhone to download the Mappiness app. The principle that iPhone ownership was required restricted participation to wealthy households with an income of £48,000. The age of participants was young too with over 66% under 35 years and nearly 80% of the participants employed and 13% in education.
Interesting excerpts taken from the Mappiness study:
Tuesday is the unhappiest day of the week
Saturday is the happiest day of the week
Higher happiness reported in Scotland and Dorset
Lower happiness in Slough and parts of London
People are happier at home than at work
Higher temperatures and lower wind speeds make us happier
Rain, wind or fog make us less happy
People are more happy outdoors than indoors or in a vehicle
Physical activities running, hiking, birdwatching make us happy
Happiness is greater in natural environments is published in ‘Global Environmental Change’. Surprises or no surprises, the quantitative and substantial evidence reaped to prove that outside space is good for physical and mental health can be used for the first time to inform policy makers in decision making.
George Mackenna, Economics Professor at Sussex University is comforted by the lack of surprise in the data,”the lack of surprises is also reassuring. If I told you people were happiest with the flu in Slough on a Monday, you’d probably think I’d made a mistake somewhere!”
Mappiness, the happiness mapping app http://www.mappiness.org.uk
Happiness is greater in natural environments in press in Global Environmental Change: