Enjoying a nature walk can lead to a happy and healthy future by boosting your self-control and optimism by up to a sixth, according to a recent study.

Human behavior is influenced by both natural and built environments. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the physical and mental health of individuals depends on the safety and quality of their physical, natural, built, and social environments. An urban, built environment could add to both increased stress and cognitive impairment, which can result in physical health complications. On the other hand, researchers have unveiled that exposing those who are injured and ill to open, undeveloped land typically speeds up their recovery.

Publishing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers from VU University Amsterdam sought to examine the effects of exposure to natural environments on the well-being and perceptions of the future in three different study groups. The researchers conducted two laboratory experiments and a field study.

In the first experiment, researchers decided to test whether exposure to natural landscapes would reduce the need for instant gratification behavior compared to urban landscapes. Forty-seven participants were randomly assigned by the order of arrival to the laboratory to either the nature or urban setting. In this design, the participants were asked to make choices between two monetary options: 100 euros now or a larger sum that grew with 10-euro increments after 90 days.

The findings showed that age and gender did not influence the behavior of the participants when it came to environment and monetary decisions. Nature exposure, however, was found to significantly influence temporal discounting, or gratification behavior. The participants who were in a natural environment were more likely to wait for the larger delayed reward by 10 percent compared to their counterparts.

In the second experiment, 67 participants were randomly assigned to either nature, urban, or controlled environments based on their arrival order. The researchers aimed to find evidence of the psychological mechanisms that drove the difference between exposures to natural and to urban environments. The psychological mechanisms were measured by providing the participants with two monetary options: a specified sum now (ranging from 11 to 80 euros) and a larger sum (ranging from 25 to 85 euros) after a specified delay, ranging from seven to 91 days.

Researchers reconfirmed their hypothesis in the second experiment. Participants who were exposed to the natural environment showed a 16 percent reduction in future discounting. Lush, green natural environments were associated with a feeling of resource abundance, which allowed the participants to think more long-term and aim for a higher reward rather than settle for a short-term, impulsive decision.

Outside the laboratory setting, the researchers conducted a field study to observe whether the differences found in experiments one and two still applied when participants were asked to walk through either a real natural or urban landscape environment. Forty-three participants took part and were randomly assigned to either a forest or built-up area based on the order they contacted the researchers. Those in the natural environment reported a greater positive mood than participants in the urban condition. However, mood was not found to affect future discounting.

"Urban landscapes tend to make us very impulsive and more short-term thinkers. Being in towns and cities increase competition - for status, resources, partners - and so we feel the need to make quick decision,” said Professor Van Vugt, lead researcher of the study, the Daily Mail reports.

Overall, all three studies showed that exposure to natural landscapes decreases temporal discounting and makes people care more for their future. Self-control and optimism were found to increase during nature walks.

“This is an important result because delay of gratification is an essential ingredient for promoting individual and social change pertaining to, for instance, healthy lifestyles, antisocial behavior, resource conservation and population growth,” Professor Vugt said.

To learn more about the benefits of walking, click here.