If you’re getting out on the trail this weekend to enjoy the scenery and get a little healthy exercise, you are in good company. A recent study conducted by The Outdoor Industry Association, a Boulder, Colorado based not-for-profit company, gives some pretty good figures showing the popularity of outdoor enthusiasm.
It turns out the annual consumer spending on outdoor recreation is $646 billion, third to financial services and insurance ($780 billion) and outpatient health care ($767 billion). In fact, Americans spend more on bicycling gear and trips ($81 billion) than they do on airplane tickets and fees ($51 billion).
If you live in Colorado, you know that Coloradoans in general have a fervor for the outdoors. With the American College of Sports Medicine annual American Fitness Index listing Denver as the fifth fittest city in the U.S, it stands to reason there is a connection between the fitness and that outdoor fervor.
And a recent impromptu and nonscientific study I conducted over two weekends suggested just that. I actually stopped people on the trail over a few summer weekends and asked them among other things, “Why are you hiking?” The responses were fairly similar; a sense of peace and happiness were the primary motivators for getting outdoors.
This was interesting because I was expecting a healthy lifestyle response and instead I found a fourth element to add to the equation: leisure, exercise, health and happiness. That makes sense, right? Isn’t a sense of peace, well-being and general happiness what we are all after?
An article published by Ed Diener and Micaela Chan shows a connection between happiness, health and longevity. And although they find it difficult to “determine the causal direction” between subjective well-being, health, and longevity, the study implies there is a correlation between the three. So, if it makes you happy to get outside and exercise, that sense of happiness and wellbeing in turn may make you healthier and extend your life. This seems a real win-win: enjoying the outdoors stimulates happiness, which in turn stimulates health.
In exploring this correlation between the outdoors and happiness, I spoke with a president of a Denver based bio-tech company about getting outdoors. The topic of listening to music came up, and he explained that he chooses to run outdoors with headphones because “sometimes you just want to take time for yourself.”
Who doesn’t want to be alone and recharge before the day starts, or go on a weekend hike after a long week of work? Continuing my own little survey into these issues, on a recent run I counted twenty runners, and seventeen of them wore headphones. We all have listened to music during our workouts at one time or another for this very reason, to find a sense of peace and happiness that comes from introspection, right?
But is a general sense of happiness enough to improve our health or is there something more that needs to be at work? A recent study evaluating, among other things, the benefits of happiness that comes from selfless behavior suggests happiness alone is not enough. Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Steve Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles did a study that included a closer look at the health benefits of happiness, and comparing what is called “eudaimonic happiness,” or a selfless type of happiness, with “hedomic happiness,” or a happiness that comes from an inward happiness, living “the good life.”
Fredrickson found, “At the cellular level, our bodies appear to respond better to a different kind of well-being, one based on a sense of connectedness and purpose.” So when it comes to health benefits, maybe happiness in itself is not enough without adding purpose – altruism, selfless behavior, a willingness to serve – into the mix.
A 19th Century author Mary Baker Eddy, who spent her life dedicated to thinking about health and spirituality, shared this insight on happiness: “Happiness is spiritual, born of Truth and Love. It is unselfish; therefore it cannot exist alone, but requires all mankind to share it” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, p. 57).
This idea that happiness begins from a higher spiritual source, from Truth and Love, which in turn must be shared, is not something unique. One can’t help but think of the teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount, and similar teachings can be found in Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, etc. And this happiness that comes from a selfless motive is also one of the underlying factors in things like charitable work and community service.
Which makes me think specifically of those friends who most enjoy the outdoors, they also tend to be the ones planning hiking, camping, and biking trips for friends and acquaintances; and they also happen to be the ones who are active volunteers for community service projects like trail maintenance and state park cleanups.
So, my survey and these studies leave me with this uncommon health tip for outdoor enthusiasts – i.e. those who spend more annually on outdoor gear and trips than they do on gasoline and household utilities combined. Try taking a moment to look at your surroundings from a more community oriented perspective. Try to engage with and be of service to those around you. Not only will this serve your community, it may even make you feel good while having a long-term benefit on your health and longevity.
David L. Price, a Colorado Attorney, writes on the connection between health, thinking and spirituality. He is also the media and legislative representative for Christian Science in Colorado.