Need a Quick, Easy Happiness Boost? Go Outside.

This proposed happiness resolution is easy. Go outside.

Go outside into the sunlight; light deprivation is one reason that people feel tired. Research suggests that light stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood and increase motivation.

For an extra boost, get your sunlight first thing in the morning.

Now, I’m the kind of person who loves to sit around the house in my pajamas. If I can manage it, I enjoy the occasional day when I never step foot out of my apartment. But even though I love staying in, there’s nevertheless something slightly oppressive about being inside all day.

And going from your front door, to the car door, to the office door, and then in reverse, isn’t much better.

At least for me, unscientifically speaking, spending time outside gives a feeling of freedom, of connecting with the seasons (even when the weather isn’t ideal), of breathing fresh air, of not being so trapped by a schedule that I can’t be out in the world.
Plus, if you use your time outside to go for a walk, you’ll get a double benefit for mood and energy. Because I live in New York City, I get a lot of opportunities to walk around outside, and I know it boosts my spirits.

If possible, push the directive to “Go outside” a little further, and try to build some more outdoor time into your life. Go hiking, go birdwatching, get a dog, walk to work.

People in industrialized countries spent about 93% of their time inside; don’t forget how energizing and cheering it can be to go outdoors.

What about you? Do you love to go outside, or do you have to prod yourself to make sure you do it?

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

* I was part of a very interesting discussion for Frank Faulk’s CBC radio documentary, Say No to Happiness, with my pal Todd Kashdan, Daniel Polish, and Jordan Peterson.

* Want to launch a group for people doing Happiness Projects together? Email me at gretchenrubin1 at gmail dot com for the starter kit. Want to see if a group already exists in your area? Look here. Want to talk to people about starting a new group? Start a discussion here. I’m thrilled by all the interest in starting Happiness Project groups! Keep me posted!

  • annabarlowe

    I go outside at least once a week, as long as I can wear SPF 500 and a Hazmat suit to protect my beautiful wickedness.  No such luck today, though – the rain would wash the sunscreen off!  🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, yes, should have mentioned sunscreen. It’s annoying to put it on, but
      now that I’m more tuned in to smells, I enjoy it more because I love the
      scent of it.


      • Holly

        Speaking of smells, Gretchen, I thought of you recently when reading a chapter from Daniel Amen’s book “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”. He cites research that shows a strong link between smells and memory, due to the fact that these are both processed in the brain’s deep limbic system. This also has a strong effect on mood.

        I think it’s fascinating when scientific research confirms what I have experienced – and it’s true that nice smells make me feel better!

        • That’s a great book!

  • There’s nothing I love more than cocooning inside. I love to read, and write, do projects, and putter…all indoors. I remember when I was a kid babysitters would always enthusiastically suggest “let’s go outside!” and I’d be thinking: “Why?”

    That said, ever since having my kids, I’ve come to appreciate the wonderful feeling of going outside. I had to force myself, at first, and it was mostly about survival in the beginning (a baby in a stroller is easy…rattling around a house all day with a baby is crazy-making). I now find getting out with my kids and going for walks every day gives my whole being a boost, and I feel vaguely cranky if I skip it. It doesn’t have to be an all-day affair. Just a little connection with fresh air and a ceiling-free sky will do it.

  • kathleen

    Great post.  There is nothing that lifts my mood more than being outside in the fresh air regardless of the weather! Sometimes on the bleakest of days, getting wrapped up warmly and going outside to brave the elements is my fastest route to happiness!

  • I spend most of my time in front of a computer, so I’m happy that part of my daily commute includes a 20-minute walk to my office building. Otherwise I know I wouldn’t get outside enough.

    One interesting thing, though: I’ve noticed that people are always chastising the general population to “unplug”: i.e., take out your headphones and take in the sounds while you’re outside. For the first year at my job, I didn’t use my iPod for my daily walk. Then I got some nice in-ear ones that block out the L and found that listening to podcasts, an audiobook, or music puts me in such a good mood in the morning, and makes the walk go by faster in the evening when I’m itching to be home. I still take in the sights and smells of the outdoors, but I’m a lot happier with my own soundtrack!

  • Being a loner, I love staying indoors for days, but opening the window shades nice and wide to let a burst of sunshine in becuase I do feel happier when it’s sunny outside.

    But after 4 or 5 days in the house, I get a craving to go out–and really appreciate being out in the open air and sunshine.

  • Jenny

    When my daughter was 2, she used to stand by the door and yell “I need to be outside!!!”. I feel like her much of the time. When I was young, I always hoped that I would find a good outside career. I love my job, but it doesn’t give me the outside time I need. I have to make it outside every day or I really get cranky. 

  • Peninith1

    As I approached retirement, I actually spent some money having a landscaper help me make a garden in my small front and back yards so that I would have a commitment to going outside built into my daily life. Otherwise I would be inclined to spend too much time indoors sewing, reading, and on line. I definitely enjoy the feeling of stepping outside to water and tend my plants every day. I am not able to do long hikes or heavy-duty outside athletics, but it is wonderful to go out and watch butterflies and check on the progress of flowers!

  • Elizabeth

    For me, having a dog is the best way to ensure happiness! Unconditional love, no complaining, and I get to enjoy the best outdoor spots my area has to offer! For very little “cost” I get this perfect companion and I “get to” be outdoors every day. Even on our summer vacations, I am “forced” to find good outdoor spaces to be with my dog!

    • gretchenrubin

      Studies show that people with dogs get more exercise, and enjoy it more,
      than people who belong to gyms. Plus all that LOVE.


  • Rachel

    I so agree! I work inside all day. If I don’t at least step outside at some point in the day, I begin to feel a little trapped within four walls. Medical professionals are now saying that most people don’t get enough Vitamin D–that just gives me another reason to go for an afternoon stroll and get some sunshine.

  • I love being outside! I used to spend most of my days indoors in front of the computer, but lately I find that if I don’t make time to get outside for at least a few minutes I get really antsy and irritable. 

  • Takeahappybreak

    This is excellent advice. Staying indoors, with artificial lighting and recirculating air etc, is not a good idea, for long periods of time. I also agree about taking it a bit further, spending time in the beauty of nature is even better. Thanks for a good reminder.

  • MsJoanie

    I live in Seattle (only for a year now) and the lack of sunshine is truly oppressive. I have a two year old son and even he has to be prodded to go outside, but once we do, we always feel better.  Even if it’s not sunny (which it never is) we feel better after a walk around the block or a walk along the water. And when it is sunny, we all respond with the same excitement, “Yay, we get to go outside!”  It is hard to WANT to go outside with the cruddy weather, but we try hard to get past it.

    • Wenekirose

      Living in Vancouver BC, also with a wet and dreary winter climate, I find that my dog is often the only thing that gets me to brave the elements year-round! It makes such a difference in how I feel and how productive I am the rest of the day if I get out for a walk in the morning, rain or shine!

  • Going outside every day is of the most important of my happiness resolutions!

  • I have a tendency to stay indoors if I don’t create a reason to go out — a vegetable garden is what worked for me.

  • bev

    At the end of most days i either sit on the back step and feeling the sun slowly fall behind the neighbouring houses or if it’s raining i sit in the kitchen with that door open, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It’s a good way for me to meditate on the things that are important and let the worries of the day slip away. There’s always tomorrow.

  • Donna

    This is so true. Sometimes on my days off,  I’ll look up and it will be 5 PM and I will have spent the entire day indoors, in my pajamas. This might sound wonderful to people who are under a lot of stress, but to me it can definitely be a little depressing. Just going outside and walking in my backyard a few minutes makes me feel better.

  • I’ve recently altered my exercise routine to include three days of walk/runs instead of doing my workout indoors.  It’s made such a huge positive difference in the way I feel mentally and physically.

    I normally experience SAD during our long, dark winters and I crave being outdoors.  I think that continuing this exercise pattern through the winter, even if it’s dark through most of it because I begin at 5:45 a.m., will still help me tremendously.   I think the personal benefits out way any potential dangers of being outside in the pre-dawn too.

  • I totally agree with getting out at least once everyday. I was very glad for as long as I lived in Florida because I was able to get out with my children every single day and keep their moods elevated always. We would having painting sessions and drama sessions on the deck and it was always great fun. This led them to never be bored or cranky.
    And when we do step outdoors, we always tend to meet at least a couple other people that are passing by and it’s nice to have a little conversation – human interaction plays such an important role in feeling happy and connected.

  • Kelly

    Gretchen, here is a little research to support your theory…. Being nearby nature is better for mental health. The medical records of 345,143 people living in The Netherlands were coordinated with the amount of green space, such as parks or wooded areas, near their homes. People who lived within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of green space had a lower prevalence of 15 of 24 disease conditions. The relationship was strongest for anxiety disorder and depression. In areas with 90% green space, 1.8% of people had anxiety disorders compared to about 2.6% of people living near 10% green space. A larger percent (3.2%) of people living in more urbanized areas had depression versus 2.4% of those in more rural areas.
    SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, online first (October 15, 2009)

    • Ebukvic

      this makes alot of sense. i am on medical leave from school and have to move back in with my parents..finding that the rule of no painting will help me. i will work in the garage :]