A new study led by the University of Vermont (UVM) has measured the “happiness effects” of city parks in the 25 largest cities in the United States. Using massive amounts of data from social media – about 1.5 million Twitter posts – the researchers have found that city parks in Indianapolis, Austin, and Los Angeles had the most mood boosting benefits. According to the scientists, the feelings experienced by visitors to these parks appear to be equivalent to the mood spikes on holidays like Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve.
“We understand the irony of using Twitter and technology to measure happiness from nature,” said study lead author Aaron Schwartz, a PhD student at UVM. “But our goal is to use technology for the greater good – to better understand the effect nature has on humans, which until now has been difficult to quantify in such large numbers.”
Schwartz and his colleagues were surprised by several top ranked cities in the study, such as Indianapolis, Austin, or Jacksonville, which have lower per capita funding levels for parks compared to many other cities ranking lower on the list. Apparently, a more powerful predictor of happiness was park size. Thus, the happiness benefit was highest in parks over 100 acres in area.
“Being in nature offers restorative benefits not available for purchase in a store, or downloadable on a screen,” said study co-author Chris Danforth, a professor of Mathematics at UVM. “However, not all parks appear to be equal when it comes to happiness. The ability to immerse yourself in a larger, greener natural areas had a greater effect than smaller paved city parks.”
According to the scientists, one possible explanation could be that larger parks provide greater opportunities for mental restoration and separation from the stressful city environment.
“These new findings underscore just how essential nature is for our mental and physical health. These results are especially timely given our increased reliance on urban natural areas during the COVID pandemic,” concluded UVM scientist Taylor Ricketts.
The study – containing a complete ranking of the cities – is published in the journal PLoS ONE.