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Outdoor children are happier children

New research shows it's because they feel empowered by ‘sustainable behaviors'.

A new study has found that feeling connected to nature makes children happier, due to their ability to carry out eco-friendly and sustainable behaviors. While a sense of nature connection has previously been linked to pro-environmental behaviors in adults, this is the first such research that found happiness to be “a positive consequence of the latter.”

Researchers from the Sonora Institute of Technology assessed 296 children between the ages of 9 and 12 from a city in northwestern Mexico. Their findings were published in February 2020 in the medical journal Frontiers in Psychology. The children responded to three categories of question.

The first pertained to sustainable behaviors, which included altruism (whether they donate used clothes, give money to the Red Cross, help people who have fallen down or hurt themselves, etc.), equity (where they stand on questions of equality among sexes, ages, socioeconomic conditions), frugality (using money to buy treats, buying more food than you'll eat, buying shoes that pair with all clothes), and pro-ecological behaviors (i.e. recycling, turning off lights, reusing objects, saving water, separating garbage).

Next, the children were asked about their perceived connection to nature, using the Likert scale that refers to “the pleasure of seeing wildflowers and wild animals, hearing sounds of nature, touching animals and plants, and considering that human beings are part of the natural world, among other [things].” Lead study author Dr. Laura Berrera-Hernández described this connectedness as not just appreciating nature's beauty, but “being aware of the interrelation and dependence between ourselves and nature, appreciating all of the nuances of nature, and feeling a part of it.” Children answered questions on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (totally agree).

Finally, happiness levels were measured using the Subjective Happiness Scale, which makes three statements: I consider myself happy in general; I consider myself happy compared to most peers; and I am enjoying life regardless of what happens. Children rated these statements on a scale of 1 (not very happy) to 7 (very happy).

The results were analyzed and showed clearly that the more connected a child feels to the natural world, the more inclined s/he is to engage in sustainable behaviors, which in turn leads to greater happiness. The only exception was frugality, which had near-zero correlation with happiness. This is likely because frugality is not always voluntary or is controlled by parents, not children.

It is intriguing research that underscores yet again the importance of getting children outside and instilling in them a love of the great outdoors. Parents and educators can now add two more reasons to the already-lengthy list of why kids should play outdoors as often as possible, for as long as possible. It just makes their lives so much better all around, and makes the planet a better place, too.

New research shows it's because they feel empowered by ‘sustainable behaviors'.