Going Shopping or Going Into Nature: Which Is Better for Your Mental Health?

What should you do this weekend – go blow some hard-earned money, or go walk around by some trees? One is certainly cheaper than the other.

A recent study titled Shopping Versus Nature: An Exploratory Study of Everyday Experiences, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, investigated, well, pretty much what the title suggests. Specifically, it looked at how people experience the activities of shopping and spending time in nature differently.

On average, it turns out, people would probably rather spend their free time exploring the outdoors as opposed to the local mall.

When the 357 people participating in the study were asked to describe experiences that involved being in nature and experiences that involved shopping, the nature experiences tended to be more positive. Overall, nature experiences were more likely to be described as “peaceful” and as “active.”

However, there were individual differences in how much enjoyment people derived from buying stuff versus being in nature. In particular, whether people felt connected to nature played an important role. The more connected to nature people felt, the larger the discrepancy between their experiences in shops and nature. That is, people who were more connected to nature found it far more pleasant being consumers of nature rather than just plain consumers. But people who were less connected to nature tended to see less of a difference between the desirability of being in nature versus going shopping.

Based on what we already know, it’s not such a big surprise that people seem to get more pleasure from being in nature than from shopping.

Previous research has linked time in nature to better mental health. For example, a 2014 study found that people who lived in neighborhoods with more green space tended to have less depression, anxiety and stress.

By contrast, I’m not aware of any research linking more time shopping to better mental health. (Of course, it could be out there – if you know of any, leave a comment!) In fact, compulsive shopping is a mental health problem in and of itself, whereas the same doesn’t seem to be true of compulsively spending time in nature.

Ultimately, then, time spent in nature seems to be a win-win. It’s good for your mental health, it’s free, and all else being equal, most people seem to enjoy it more than time spent shopping. Of course, shopping can be fun too. After all, the study suggests that some people get more a kick out of nature than others. But if you’re casting about for something to do this weekend, maybe give the outdoors a shot!

Image: Flickr/mouli choudari