You’ve probably seen the Stanford study that shows people who have the freedom to work from home are generally happier and more productive–with one big caveat.
Namely, it’s that it’s more the freedom to work from home, rather than actually doing it every day, that seems to improve how they work and feel.
With that in mind, there’s another intriguing study about work that might surprise you. And it applies to people who commute, rather than those with the freedom to work from home.
Writing in the journal Environment International, researchers said they found that people who simply commute to work through “natural elements” and environments had much better mental health, to include general happiness at work.
They defined those “natural elements” in an accompanying press release as “outdoor spaces that contain ‘green’ and/or ‘blue’ natural elements such as street trees, forests, city parks and natural parks/reserves, and also included all types of waterbodies.”
The scientists, from Barcelona’s Institute for Global Health, asked 3,599 workers questions about their daily commutes, as well as their mental health and happiness.
In short, those who traveled through nature to get to work had a 2.74 point higher mental health score than their peers. Their results were even better if their commutes also involved physical activity, such as riding a bike or walking.
“Physical activity in natural environments can reduce stress, improve mood and mental restoration,” said Wilma Zijlema, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study. “[O]ur data show that commuting through these natural spaces alone may also have a positive effect on mental health.”
So where does this leave you? Obviously, if you’re commuting and you have the freedom to change things up, it might be worth the time to try to add a scenic, natural detour or alternate route on the way to work.
But what if you can’t really alter your route? I get it.
When I was commuting every day on a NJ Transit train to New York City, or when I was writing the Metro in Washington, it wasn’t as if I could ask the engineer to take a detour through a park. And before that, when I was driving up the Southeast Expressway in Boston every day, it wasn’t as though I could just decide to take a detour through a forest.
Maybe you’re in a similar position.
One thing to do might be to scour your route, using Google Maps or another detailed source, and figure out if there’s even a short detour you can add.
You might realize that you can squeeze in a quick drive on a tree-lined surface street, rather than the freeway. Or you might see that walking an extra minute out of the way lets you walk through a park, rather than straight down a city street.
Or else, find an artificial way to bring some nature into your commute.
For example, I’ve always found it’s soothing to listen to a recording of ocean waves on repeat while riding public transportation. Close your eyes, and you can almost imagine you’re near the beach.
Barring that, find a way to work from home more often–and then set up your work space to be as natural an environment as possible.