Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness, University of Derby
During the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people turned to nature to manage their mental wellbeing. A great deal of valuable research has shown that being out in nature is beneficial for human wellbeing. Much of this work uses time and visits to nature as a key measure – they are both straightforward to record. However, this research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness – put simply, a love of nature. Also, few studies have considered the various ways people engage with nature in concert to establish which types of activity relate best to well-being. This matters because policy recommendations from research are based on the metrics used.
Recently we’ve been exploring how being connected and engaging with nature in simple ways relates to wellbeing – and importantly pro-nature behaviours. Results from three national surveys have produced similar findings. People’s nature connectedness, rather than time in nature, is a stronger indicator of mental wellbeing. An effect found to be nearly four times larger than the increase associated with higher socio-economic status. Further, during the restrictions to control the pandemic, increases in noticing nature were linked to higher levels of wellbeing than increases in visiting nature. In one study, when measured alongside nature connection and noticing nature, time in nature uniquely explained just 1% of happiness, a worthwhile life, and higher wellbeing. In empirical work that helps demonstrate a causal link, we’ve found that simply noticing ‘the good things in nature’ brings sustained benefits to mental wellbeing, with clinically significant improvements for people with common mental health problems.
The finding that spending time in nature is a lesser-factor may seem odd. After all, solid research has demonstrated that time in nature is important for wellbeing. However, as noted above, this research has generally not included individual factors of nature connection and engagement. Previous research using time alone is likely to be measuring a close connection with nature and various forms of nature engagement – but not as well as using specific measures of connection and engagement.
Or put another way, imagine if dietary research had focussed on time spent eating and visits to the fridge. Dietary advice would focus on those. Of some use, but it’s what you do in nature, or what you eat, that really matters. Measuring fat content, calories and exercise means time eating would drop from significance. Recommendations are based on what is measured.
Being connected and engaging with nature generally involves spending time in nature, yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with nature. Time does not tell the full story. What matters is how that time is spent—developing and being in a close relationship with nature. However, time in nature is a better indicator of levels of physical activity – it often involves walking, cycling etc. So, when looking at general physical health, time in nature has an important role to play. Although, once again that will be time spent being active, rather than inactive.
In summary, by not being tuned into the nature around us, our lives are poorer in terms of happiness and meaning. Yet tuning into nature—through simple acts like smelling wildflowers while relaxing in a garden—helps to explain differential levels of happiness and meaning in individual’s daily lives. Tuning in to nature is not about time, not about minutes. It’s about moments. Feeling connected to nature and engaging in simple activities in nature explains mental wellbeing better than time spent in nature.
The results also have important practical implications for nature-based programmes and governmental policies. Perhaps foremost, would be a shift from focusing on getting people to visit and spend time in natural (often more remote) spaces to focusing on how people can tune in and connect with nature close to home. This would help to enhance nature connectedness and thereby wellbeing – of people and nature. This shift would inform and fit well with important initiatives to provide greater and fairer access to nature. A close relationship with nature is easier when there is accessible nature nearby. This also informs the type of green spaces provided and how they are designed, promoted and used.
Our pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at a wider scale to inform cultural programmes and urban designs to foster and prompt engagement with everyday nature. City planners could invest beyond islands of urban parks to ensuring that nature is brought to all residents, for example, by ensuring that city streets and neighbourhoods have trees and flowers alongside (or at least visible from) walkways and routes to public transport and shopping areas. Long-term planning for urban “greenways” connecting parks, public, transit, schools, and basic-necessity shops would improve the lives of all residents – if they were prompted and understood the value of noticing nature. As we know from previous research, most people do not notice nature. Further, green infrastructure could be designed to facilitate Green Social Prescribing.
Finally, national policies aimed at raising levels of nature connectedness, and tracking this growth, are required as an expansion to current policies which, in general, are often geared towards measuring time in or visits to nature. We join Lambert and colleagues (2020) in their call for nature connectedness to be included as a standard metric of wellbeing; we also expand this call to national and civic governmental bodies.
We need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need for greater public understanding that a close connection with nature is a key component of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life—a good life. There are a number of broad implications for policy that can help make this happen:
- Foster a culture of connecting with nature – from an arts policy that celebrates nature, to nature connectedness being a standard metric for wellbeing.
- Use biodiversity to unite the wellbeing of people and nature by bringing nature recovery networks into urban areas for an abundance of wildlife to notice.
- Improve access for connection – moving beyond simple access to creating ‘habitats for connection’, providing meaningful engagement with nature on everyone’s doorstep.
- Design urban spaces around the pathways to nature connectedness, to prompt people to notice, engage and care for nature.
- Build a life-long relationship with nature – addressing the ‘teenage dip’ by bringing nature into secondary schools and ensuring adults understand the value of nature for keeping well.