Are national parks your happy place? We aren’t surprised. A new study shows that national parks worldwide are worth an estimated $6 trillion—with a “T”— in mental health benefits. A team from Australia’s Griffith University, comprised of ecologists, psychologists, and economists, looked at the psychological benefits of national park visits and compared them to the costs of poor mental health. They sampled 20,000 people in three groups, looking at improved cognition, sleep, stress relief, and reduced anxiety and depression. Overwhelmingly, parks made things better.
The researchers were able to attach an economic value on the mental health benefits of national parks, and open spaces in general, by factoring in how much countries spend on mental health treatment and care, while taking into account poor workplace productivity and antisocial behavior. They also examined the quality-adjusted life years of the three groups under study, an economic tool that experts use to measure the value of medical care by reducing a person’s pain, whether mental or physical.
When they applied these figures to the 20,000 people studied and took note of how often they spent time in wild places and national parks, there was a clear connection between park visitation and better mental health. They then expanded those results to see what the value of better mental health through the outdoors might look like applied to the world’s population and came up with the $6 trillion figure.
“Human economies have underinvested severely in nature conservation, despite the high value of ecosystem services,” the report says, “because these services have been provided free of charge.”
That is to say, since conservation and parks aren’t profit machines, their importance to a functioning, healthy society has been overlooked.
“Parks contribute US$5-31 trillion per annum to the global economy, above what has been recognized previously,” he said. “That’s at least 10 times the value of park tourism and 100 times parks agency budgets.”
“People already visit parks to recover from stress. In healthcare terms, it’s patient-funded therapy,” said Ralf Buckley, lead researcher. “It’s possible that park visits could then become a routine part of the healthcare system, prescribed by doctors and funded by insurers.”
Even without the data from this new study, America’s national parks are one of the country’s greatest investments, returning more than 10 times every dollar spent in direct economic benefits. In 2018, national parks contributed $40 billion to the US economy, while the National Park Service budget was just $2.6 billion. Yet adjusted for inflation, the budget has remained essentially flat for the last decade—despite ROI that would satisfy the most optimistic investor, and despite chronically underfunded facilities and a maintenance backlog of more than $11 billion.
Top photo of Zion National Park: Steve Casimiro