Happiness in Twenty Minutes

Credit Michaella A. Thornton

The weather in St. Louis is often as uncertain as our times. Many days it seems as if we live inside a giant Newton’s cradle, just waiting for a gust of wind to blow one metallic ball into the next. We observe the swinging temperatures, trying our damnedest to conserve energy and momentum as the highs and lows ricochet around us.

But this Tuesday’s weather in St. Louis was glorious—52-degrees Fahrenheit with ample sun and a bit of wind, the perfect combination of bright light and fresh air.

So, given our fluctuating temps, I made it my mission to enjoy a walk around Forest Park, St. Louis’ biggest urban park, spanning 1,371 acres in the western part of the city. To put the size of Forest Park in perspective, New York’s Central Park is a mere 840 acres.

Park-size comparisons notwithstanding, research this week from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Occupational Therapy revealed that “spending 20 minutes in an urban park will make someone happier regardless of whether they are engaging in exercise or not during the visit.”

To many, the University of Alabama at Birmingham findings will not be groundbreaking. Yet, as an old tennis coach once said to me many summers ago, “Simplicity is often far from simple.”

For St. Louis native Phillip Pratt, who spent his winters sledding down Forest Park’s Art Hill and splashing in the fountains in the summer, his walks balance introspection while abetting his dog Pepper’s joy.

“It has done a lot for my spiritual uplifting,” Pratt said of being present in his go-to destination, “and, not to mention, I get to see the smile on Pepper’s face. As soon as we approach the park, she starts standing up in the back of the car, ‘Oh, God, we’re here, we’re here, we’re here!’”

Logan and Eric, two mid-twentysomethings flinging a white frisbee back and forth in an open field at the end of a wooden bridge not too far from Forest Park’s scenic Great Basin, agree that the study’s conclusion is not revolutionary. Yet, they admit, perhaps reminding ourselves to be outside for 20 minutes in a city park is not such a bad thing.

“I feel like not enough people practice that, even me,” Logan said. “For the past 15 years, I know, if I want to feel better emotionally, I need to take just a 20-minute walk every day. Even if it’s not in an actual city park, but instead a neighborhood so I can get some fresh air and sunshine. Even if people know it, it is sometimes difficult to force yourself to do it.”

“Twenty minutes seems so long, but then it’s not,” his friend Eric, visiting from Seattle, added. “Do you really need an extra 20 minutes to play around on your phone?”

Survey says probably not, but then again studies like these remind us that simply being outside can alleviate stress and mental fatigue. Such research is not uncommon. It is why we know hospital patients with windows overlooking nature fare better than those whose windows overlooked brick walls.

Joni Mitchell knew the score when she wrote “Big, Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise / put up a parking lot.”

When I asked another songwriter, Chrissy Renick, walking around the park, why she was here, she laughed and said, “I guess you could say for emotional well-being.”

“I could walk in my neighborhood,” Renick admitted, “but it’s just concrete and houses, so I’m trying to get nature time because it makes me more productive.”

In addition to the added efficiency boost, Renick also credits her walks for helping her songwriting.

“It gives me enough space to just be able to think, sort through things,” she said. “I feel like honestly it boosts my creativity. I’m a songwriter, so I’ll get ideas for writing while I’m walking. I was just walking along singing hoping no one was listening.”

Just being present in an urban park, not even singing, walking, or exercising, improves emotional well-being, which is a significant finding for those whose mobility or age may preclude more vigorous activities.

As I walked, I observed parents pushing babies and young children in strollers, dog walkers galore, and the same fit older gentleman who kept lapping me consistently. People-watching amid the squawking Canadian geese and songbirds made me forget my smartphone and problems, and breathe.

“Worry is a way to pretend that you have knowledge or control over what you don’t,” writer Rebecca Solnit writes in A Field Guide for Getting Lost,”—and it surprises me, even in myself, how much we prefer ugly scenarios to the pure unknown.”

Perhaps that is the beauty of spending time in a city park—remembering the clarifying calm independent of a cityscape. Wilderness, even in cities, is all around us. We only need to go outside and see for ourselves.