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Watching Nature Documentaries Makes Us Ridiculously Happy


Katy Evans

Katy is Managing Editor at IFLScience where she oversees editorial content from News articles to Features, and even occasionally writes some.

Managing Editor

One of the many laugh-out-loud moments from Planet Earth II that launched a thousand memes. (C) BBC

A collaborative study between the BBC, makers of Planet Earth II, and the University of California Berkeley has found that watching nature documentaries significantly boosts our happiness and reduces stress and anxiety.

Now anyone who has seen the nail-biting sequence known simply as “Baby iguanas v snakes” will be disagreeing rather emphatically right now. We too are still recovering from that particular heart-stopping drama. But hear us out.


Commissioned to mark the launch of Planet Earth II in the US, the study was conducted by BBC Worldwide’s in-house researchers and Professor Dacher Keltner, an emotions expert and professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

In a global project, the researchers used cutting-edge facial mapping technology on 7,500 participants from a broad range of nationalities – including the US, UK, Singapore, India, South Africa, and Australia – to read their emotions in real time as they watched short clips of a range of television programs, including the news, dramas, and, of course, Planet Earth II


The results showed that women experienced a more dramatic emotional change when viewing the nature documentary clips, and people between the ages of 16 to 24 showed the biggest reduction in nervousness, overburden, and fatigue. But, overall, the majority experienced significant increases in positive emotions including awe, joy, curiosity, contentment, enthusiasm, and amusement. The study also found a substantial decrease in emotions such as nervousness, anxiety, fear, stress, and tiredness.

“What excites me about this study is seeing how Planet Earth II connects with people on a deep emotional level – as a filmmaker that is very rewarding,” said executive producer Mike Gunton. “We're always striving to bring our audiences closer to nature and it's thrilling to see how this can generate such positive emotions and have a powerful impact on our viewer's mood and wellbeing.”


"Look for the..."

The study also involved reviewing 150 existing scientific papers that explored the link between nature and human happiness and wellbeing. Professor Keltner concluded that our connection to nature enhanced our attention, cognitive performance, and sense of calm, making us pro-social, more effective team players, and could even improve our physical well-being.

“The shifts in emotion as a result of watching this powerful natural history series are significant as we know that wonder and contentment are the foundations of human happiness,” Keltner said. “If people experience feelings of awe, they are more likely to display empathetic and charitable behaviors and have been shown to be better able to handle stress.” 

In direct response to the study, BBC Earth has launched The Real Happiness Project, a website where not only will you find lots of happiness-inducing animal clips, but you can personalize your content via a “Happybot” that will tailor animal clips just for you. You create your “happy moment” by answering a short questionnaire via Facebook Messenger and can sign up to a daily or weekly dose of happiness to keep your oxytocin levels up and stress levels down.


Just a swimming sloth, doing its sloth thing.


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