Study: Parks make people as happy as Christmas

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Spending some time outside in a park can pick up your mood as much as Christmas Day-- that's according to a new study out this week from the University of Vermont. Our Cat Viglienzoni went to campus to find out why.

When UVM student Emma Radeka is on summer break, she works at Oakledge Park.

"This place becomes a ritual for people and a routine in their daily life to kind of escape after work," said the student from Middletown, Rhode Island.

There's one thing she notices a lot-- smiles.

"I can safely say I have only ever heard one angry person at Oakledge, and it was someone on the phone yelling at someone," Radeka said.

Her friend and fellow student Carrie Finkelstein is from Philadelphia.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Do people look happier in parks?
Carrie Finkelstein: Oh god, yeah.

Finkelstein says in the city, parks give people a break. And when her friends visit Vermont, they notice the green space here.

"They also tend to go immediately to Instagram and post it and go, 'Oh, it's so green,' because it's just something that's universally recognized as a positive thing and as sort of an escape, as well," Finkelstein said.

Reactions like that on a different social media platform-- Twitter-- were the basis of a new UVM study. Looking at 4,700 different users in San Francisco, what researchers found was that when people were at the city's 160 parks, they used more positive language than they did before the visit.

"This kind of indicates that people may be getting out of this negative frame of mind that they might be in in their day-to-day life and going to the parks might provide a kind of stress relief," said Aaron Schwartz, a Ph.D. student at UVM.

Schwartz is studying the impact of urban parks and trying to quantify their benefits. Twitter was an easy way to get hundreds of reactions from a wide range of people. But he admits it isn't a perfect set of data.

"You're not getting an exact picture of someone's happiness. You're trying to infer it based on the words they're writing," Schwartz said.

But he says it's part of a larger body of work pointing to mental and physical benefits of urban parks. The greener the park, the better. WCAX News asked him how his research applies to a smaller city like Burlington. He said he would not expect to see as big of a mood swing here because we're more used to green spaces.

"Burlington has an excellent park system," Schwartz said. "Most people can walk to a park within 10 minutes of their home, which is excellent."

Down the line, he's hoping to expand his research to include other large cities to see if climate makes a difference.

VERMONT PROGRAM GIVES PARK PRESCRIPTIONS

Vermont actually has a program to encourage people to get out into state parks because of the mental and physical health benefits of being outdoors.

The program gives health care providers around the state "prescriptions" that they can write for a free voucher to a Vermont State Park.

The Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation says they send out about 12,000 a year to doctors. About 750 get used.

They say even if people don't end up using the voucher, it's important that they hear the message that being outdoors is good for you.