January – the most drizzly month of the year – is surely made worse by living in London. Grim crowds file onto the underground, impatient but zoned-out, cold yet strangely humid, groaning as they join the shuffling queues below, and groaning as they emerge into the spitting rain above.
It doesn’t have to be this way. After university, instead of joining the race to the city, a couple of friends of mine chose to live and work deep in the English countryside. Six years later, they alone dare to show Facebook photos of January daytimes, sun breaking through clouds in a huge sky, whiskey-drinking on windswept beaches. It looks so great. Should we all be living in the country? Would we be happier?
Ecopsychology – the study of the effects of greenery on your mental health – has an answer for this. Not only does being surrounded by trees and fields make you happier, it lengthens concentration spans, reduces procrastination and makes you better at managing “major life challenges”.
That, at least, has been the lesson of studies that began as early as the 1990s, when a scientist called Frances Kuo started interviewing residents of a large housing project on the south side of Chicago. They had been living in apartments either overlooking trees and grass or the urban jungle. She ran them through a series of tests – measuring attention and coping skills – and found that those with a greener view outperformed the others on every task.
Since then, we’ve found that hospital patients recover better when they can see trees from the window, and a walk in the countryside boosts attention and working memory. Domestic violence is rarer in homes overlooking grass and flowers, and the clamour of a city street drains willpower, making us more likely to chose chocolate and crisps over a fruit salad, and more likely to loose our tempers.
Last year, a study using data from 10,000 adults over 17 years compared the effects of living in a “green” urban area to other life-enhancing factors. Living by a park, they calculated, was one third as good as being married, and one tenth as good as being employed. The refreshing effect of greenery is measurable.
But a note to urban planners – a few forlorn trees on roundabouts and the odd soggy postage stamp of grass won’t quite cut it. A 2007 paper by Richard Fuller showed that green spaces only help mental wellbeing when they’re a bit exciting. Biodiversity is important – the larger the variety of trees in a park, the better it boosts mental wellbeing.
We should also beware of artificial constructions – and I’m thinking particularly here of those hideous virtual gardens springing up on ground floors of trendy urban offices. They’re no substitute for the real thing.
An odd little experiment lead by Peter Kahn illustrates this. After giving volunteers a stressful maths test, he split them into three groups to calm down – one looking out over a lawn, one watching the same lawn on a TV screen, and one looking at a blank wall. He measured their heart rate reduction and found that only looking at the real lawn helped reduce stress: the digital reproduction worked no better than a blank wall.
So should we all move to the country? Well I’m probably not going to, to be honest – the city comes with too many perks, and I’m not going to risk my wifi connection. No, I’ll just have to keep competing for that seat by the window, that patch of grass in the park in summer. The rest of you definitely should though. Go on.