The simple strategy scientifically proven to boost your mood

By John Murphy
Published July 7, 2020

Key Takeaways

Recent research shows that walking can help you live longer. But can walking also help you feel happier? 

Yes, it can, and in only 10 minutes—but there’s a catch. To get the biggest bang from your stroll, you need to do just a little bit more than put one foot in front of the other. Allow us to walk you through the process, and you’ll feel better in almost no time. 

Don’t call it exercise

First of all, you know that even moderate physical activity, like walking, produces serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good hormones. Physical activity also lowers cortisol and other stress-related neurochemicals. The upshot is that a good walk makes us feel better and releases stress. 

But this research isn’t looking at the stress-busting effects of walking as exercise. In fact, some of the researchers clarified that the walking that they studied was specifically not “exercise,” but rather “incidental ambulation.” In other words, this isn’t the kind of walking you do around a track or on a trail. It’s merely the kind of walking that gets you from place to place. 

These researchers hypothesized that the simple act of walking puts people into a good mood (or “positive affect”). To test this, they performed a series of experiments in which the participants had no idea that walking was even part of the study. In the first experiment, they found that people who went on a predetermined 12-minute walk around a college campus had a much bigger boost in mood than those who sat and watched a slideshow of the same sights. 

The second experiment controlled for some of the variables in the first experiment, such as being in the outdoors in a stimulating environment. For this experiment, participants either went for a walk through a boring environment—a drab campus building—or they sat and watched a video tour of the same building. The researchers also added a twist: some of the participants in both groups were told they had to write an essay after the tour. The idea was to see if walking still increased mood even in a boring environment and with a negative expectation (writing an essay). 

The researchers found that positive affect decreased in people who sat and watched the video tour (as expected). But they also found that people who went on the walk didn’t have a downturn in mood, even if they were assigned to write the essay. 

“Ambulation appears to make activities that measure as significantly boring or dreadful seem decent at worst, or even mildly engaging,” the researchers wrote. 

In the third experiment, the researchers wanted to remove all confounders. Each participant went into a closed room and was randomly assigned to either walk on, stand on, or sit next to a treadmill for 10 minutes. (They assigned some participants to stand to see if that alone would increase mood.) All participants watched the same video of a tour of an art gallery. In the end, the researchers found that positive affect significantly increased for the people who walked, but decreased for those who stood or sat. 

“Ambulatory movement in the presence of a mildly engaging stimulus—one that generally does not cause significant changes in people’s affect levels on its own—reliably increased positive affect,” they concluded. “The effect was not related to interacting with others during an activity, being outdoors on a bright day, feeling good about doing something good for your health (ie, exercise), or viewing stimulating or desirable objects.”

A walk in the woods

So, what does this prove? Can you walk on a treadmill while watching a mildly engaging video for 10 minutes and improve your mood? Yes, you can. But, as that study suggests, the environment in which you walk can have an additional positive effect on your mood, too; but that’s not the only study to suggest this.

A group of researchers in Iceland tested whether walking in a positive environment (out in nature) also contributed to improved mood. They randomly assigned college undergraduates to three different activities: an easygoing 40-minute walk on a treadmill in a gym, an unchallenging 40-minute walk on a nature trail in a woodland park, or watching a 40-minute video of that same nature walk. The researchers tested participants at both a stressful period (during exams) and at a normal period. 

They found that all three activities reduced stress (as shown by lower cortisol levels). But only the participants who took the nature walk reported significant increases in positive affect during both stressful and conventional periods. In short, walking in nature improved mood more than watching a nature video or walking on a treadmill. 

“This finding indicates that participants in the nature group felt better after the activity, which is in line with previous study findings of the positive impact of nature exposure on mental health over and above urban environments,” the authors wrote. “The current findings add, however, to the current literature in that they show that individuals do not have to be under high life stress to benefit psychologically from exposure to nature.”

Connect with others

To review, the simple act of walking is good for your mood, and walking in nature can make you feel even better. What’s next? 

How about thinking happy thoughts? Yes. Really. But here’s the difference: You should think happy thoughts about other people to make you feel better as you walk. 

To demonstrate this, researchers at Iowa State University recruited nearly 500 undergraduates and randomized them into four groups before sending them out for a 12-minute walk around the campus: 

  • The first group was assigned the “loving-kindness” condition, in which participants were instructed to look at people and think to themselves, “I want you to be happy”—and really mean it. 

  • The second group focused on “interconnectedness” in which participants were instructed to look at people and think about the many ways that they were connected with each other—through classes, backgrounds, experiences, feelings, likes and dislikes, etc. 

  • The third group was told to make “downward social comparisons” with other people, which meant the participants of this group had to look at others and think about the ways in which they (the participants) are better off than other people. 

  • The last group was the control group, which was instructed to look at people and notice their clothing and outward appearances. 

The researchers surveyed all the participants before and after their walk to measure anxiety, happiness, stress, empathy, and connectedness.

They speculated that each of the groups, besides the control group, could experience beneficial effects. But they found that those who experienced the most benefits were those in the “loving-kindness” group, who had lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness. 

The group that focused on “interconnectedness” had a benefit only in terms of social connection. The participants in the “downward social comparison” were found to be no better off than the control group, and were significantly worse for wear, in terms of happiness and social connectedness, than those in the “loving-kindness” group.

“Walking around and offering kindness to others in the world reduces anxiety and increases happiness and feelings of social connection,” said lead study author Douglas Gentile, PhD, professor of psychology at Iowa State. “It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t take a lot of time that you can incorporate into your daily activities.”

In addition, the researchers expected to find that participants would have different reactions to each of the strategies. Sympathetic people, for instance, might adopt the “loving-kindness” or “interconnectedness” techniques better or more easily than others. Surprisingly, that wasn’t what the researchers found. 

The loving-kindness strategy worked equally well among participants to reduce anxiety and increase happiness, empathy, and feelings of social connection, the researchers learned. 

Walk the walk

Added together, these three research studies suggest that a non-athletic walk of at least 10 minutes among both nature and people—in which you wish those people well—will maximize your happiness. Happy trails! 

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