Noticing Nature, Nature Connectedness and Time in Nature: Associations with Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic

During the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people have visited and noticed nature more. We were curious to find out how nature benefited the nation’s mental wellbeing during the coronavirus restrictions. The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data. Building on some of our previous research, the survey also allowed us to compare how longer-term physical and psychological relationship with nature, and shorter-term visits and noticing of nature were associated with wellbeing – and as human and nature’s wellbeing is rarely considered together, pro-nature behaviours.

Given the continued restrictions, further understanding of how nature can benefit wellbeing is important. Therefore we’ve published the full report ahead of peer review, you can take a look here. Also, before we continue, this blog provides an opportunity to share an invite to take part in a new research project exploring the benefits of watching birds in the garden or close to home. It’s for those with an hour to spare during the day – you need to watch birds for 30 minutes. Sorry, ethics means this is for those 18+ and UK only, but when you’re in a position to feed the birds with an hour to spare please consider taking part here.

Noticing nature matters

Back to the study, PANS asked several thousand members of the public questions about how connected they are to nature, how often they visit natural spaces and how much they notice nature. The survey also collected information on pro-nature conservation behaviours and several wellbeing measures: happiness, loneliness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s life is worthwhile.

First of all, we analysed the extent to which these wellbeing variables and pro-nature conservation behaviours are predicted by people’s long-term relationship with nature: the time spent in nature over the past 12 months and nature connectedness. We found that both more time spent in nature and a greater connection to nature were positively related to several positive outcomes: life satisfaction, happiness, a worthwhile life and pro-nature conservation behaviours.

We then turned our attention to experiences of nature during the pandemic restrictions. Our analyses revealed that both the number of recent visits to green spaces and increased time noticing nature were associated with increases in life satisfaction, happiness and the sense of one’s life being worthwhile. The more people spent time in and noticed nature during the pandemic, the greater their wellbeing. Increases in noticing nature were also positively associated with pro-nature conservation behaviours and greater loneliness. So noticing nature makes you lonely!? Nope, as a cross-sectional survey the direction of this relationship is unknown, rather than increased noticing of nature increasing loneliness, the findings could well reflect that as loneliness increases people turn to nature and spend more time noticing it, buffering the effect of reduced social connectedness that has been found in other research.

Finally, we examined all of these variables together so that we could better understand the relationship between wellbeing and the quality of long-term and short-term relationships with nature. Interestingly, recent nature visits didn’t account for any increase in wellbeing over and above that caused by long-term visits. However, recent increases in noticing nature were associated with a greater sense of having a worthwhile life and more pro-nature conservation behaviours.

These results highlight the importance of having a long-term relationship with nature, but also suggest that recent increases in noticing nature can bring psychological benefits regardless of one’s historical relationship with nature.

The results also confirm an emerging and important finding: that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from simply spending time in nature. As well as spending time in nature, we also need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing – perhaps even more so during the pandemic.

 

Full report: Richardson, M., & Hamlin, I. (2021). Noticing nature, nature connectedness and time in nature: Associations with Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic. Retrieved from psyarxiv.com/kd7bz

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Benefits of Connecting with Green Spaces: An Evaluation Toolkit for Children and Young People

By Dr Gulcan Garip & Prof Miles Richardson

Our relationship with nature is failing, as evidenced by the loss of biodiversity and climate warming. This has led to calls to reconnect people with nature, particularly children. Programmes in green spaces are important for encouraging and enabling people to connect with nature and adopt pro-environmental behaviours, but there is a need to evaluate the outcomes. The Green Spaces Learning Places (GSLP) in London offered a range of activities for children and young people to encourage engagement with nature. In our latest study published in the Journal of Environmental Education, an evaluation toolkit was co-developed by researchers and practitioners to identify the impact of participating in the GSLP programmes on the following outcomes:

(1)            Understanding: Participants understand the value and importance of green space.

(2)             Confidence: Participants are confident to use green spaces, as part of our activities
or independently.

(3)            Nature connection: Participants develop a sense of place with green spaces, and
pass this down through generations.

(4)            Wellbeing: Participants have restorative and meaningful experiences in green
spaces.

(5)            Involvement: Participants take positive action for, and get involved with, green
spaces.

Sixteen schools took part in Green Spaces, Learning Places (GSLP). The evaluation resources were used with a pre-post survey of 504 school-aged children (5-10 years) and 54 young people (13-19 years), observation of 62 children, and interviews with 26 children and young people. Due to the young ages of some participants in the GSLP programs, existing traditional and validated scales were not appropriate for all participants and some outcomes required a bespoke approach. Therefore, a series of single item measures that directly corresponded to understanding, confidence, nature connection, wellbeing and involvement  were developed and used across all ages for consistency. Briefly, these were:

  • Understanding: ‘do you think parks and places like this are important?’ A ‘happy face’ response demonstrating a participant perceiving green spaces as important.
  • Nature connection: ‘how special are green spaces like this to you?’ A ‘happy face’ response indicated participants may experience a sense of place and meaning
  • Wellbeing, participants were asked ‘how does being in nature make you feel?’ A ‘happy face’ response indicated participants reported positive feelings about being in nature.
  • Involvement: ‘I want to take care of nature and green spaces?’ A ‘happy face’ response to this item indicated participants’ pro-environmental attitudes and likelihood of pro-environmental behaviour,
  • Confidence: ‘how confident or good are you at exploring nature and parks?’

Participants were asked to respond on a 5-point Likert scale to indicate their level of agreement with the items, an example has been presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Single-item measure to collect data on understanding.

Based on survey responses from the school-aged children (5-10 years) and young people (13-19 years), our findings suggest the GSLP programmes had a positive influence on increasing participants’ outcomes for the five dimensions we measured. Furthermore, interviews with participants and observation indicators were useful in providing contextual insights that supplemented the findings from the survey.

It was found that participation in GSLP programs significantly improved children’s (ages ranging 5-10 years) before and after ratings of the five outcomes, as shown in Table 1. Although the differences were significant, the changes were relatively modest.

Table 1. Primary School Mean Changes from baseline to follow-up – primary years

Baseline means Follow-up means % Increase
Understanding 3.51 3.62 3.1
Wellbeing 3.34 3.46 3.6
Nature connection 3.30 3.48 5.5
Confidence 3.27 3.46 5.8
Involvement 3.37 3.52 4.5

For the Green Talent program, 54 participants (aged 13 to 19) completed the survey questions with the smiley face response scales. A significant improvement across all dimensions was observed following participation in the program. Interestingly, the differences were much larger, as can be seen in Table 2. National surveys have found a notable ‘teenage dip’ in nature connectedness, this means there is a need for interventions with this age group and these findings suggest they can be very successful. Given the relationship between nature connection and mental wellbeing in adolescents, this is an area for further activity and greater returns.

Table 2. Green Talent Mean Changes from baseline to follow-up – Teenage Years

Baseline means Follow-up means % Increase
Understanding 2.55 3.19 25.1
Wellbeing 2.65 3.11 17.4
Nature connection 2.44 2.93 20.1
Confidence 2.35 2.98 26.8
Involvement 2.02 2.78 37.6

The findings from the psychological evaluation show significant positive influences based on before and after self-reports and qualitative findings related to the five outcomes, which supported the aims of the GSLP programmes. Ensuring sustainable delivery of these programs, with opportunities for children and young people to engage with green spaces as part of these programs, can allow for longer-term evaluation of the effects on participants, as well as on the conservation of green spaces.

The paper shows the value of the collaborative process which provides a model for others in evaluating similar programmes. Furthermore, the positive results related to the five outcome measures highlight the value of engaging children and young people with nature and green spaces through participation in well-designed programmes, not just for the positive impact on wellbeing for participating individuals but also for the conservation of our natural world.

 

Garip, G., Richardson, M., Tinkler, A., Glover, S., & Rees, A. (2020). Development and implementation of evaluation resources for a green outdoor educational program. The Journal of Environmental Education, 1-15.

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Physical and Emotional Access to Nature

Increasing numbers of people live in urban areas with limited access to green spaces and nature. Yet greenspaces are good for people. For example, they benefit physical health through enabling exercise, support mental wellbeing and they are also great for social activities. However, there are inequalities in access to greenspaces and nature, especially in areas of deprivation. The pandemic has highlighted inequalities, for example Natural England’s People & Nature Survey findings show that 71% of children from ethnic minority backgrounds are spending less time outside since March compared with 57% of white children. Similarly, children in households with lower income were more likely to be spending less time outdoors compared to those with greater income.

Urban living

Access to nature is important and unequal, but what is access? Typically access to nature is considered from a physical perspective – the amount of greenspace, or distance to local greenspace and visits to nature – often measured in time spent or frequency. This is often referred to as connection to nature, but to me connection is ‘psychological access’ – a close emotional connection to nature, formally defined by the psychological construct of nature connectedness which brings it’s own benefits. Indeed nature connectedness has been found to be important over and above visits to and time in nature for certain well-being outcomes and pro-nature behaviours.

Research into the benefits of nature has tended to focus on physical access – time and visits are straightforward to measure, but psychological connection matters too. There are parallels here to moving beyond the biomedical model of health to the biopsychosocial model described by Engel back in 1977. The biomedical model of health essentially views people as separate from the environment and affected by events – visits to nature perhaps. The biomedical model is still dominant in some thinking about health.

The biopsychosocial model of health includes psychological and social factors and more recently a ‘One Health’ model of health in BMJ Global recognises that humans are embedded within the rest of the natural world where health depends on biology, psychology and nature – biopsychophysis to continue the model terminology.

Access to nature and connecting people with nature for human and nature’s wellbeing would seem to align with the ‘One Health’ perspective, but does our thinking on access to nature move beyond the traditional biomedical approach? From the biopsychosocial perspective there is little consideration of physical and psychological access to nature – indeed google returned no uses of ‘psychological access to nature’. The term ’emotional access to nature’ does have some limited use, but very little (5 returns) in the research literature.

There is though increasing recognition of the psychological nature connectedness and some important work in this area has been co-ordinated by Natural England. Connecting people with nature is one of four strategic programmes in Natural England’s recent policy paper. This sets out to ensure that there are ‘nature-rich’ places close to where people live, enabling ‘environmentally deprived’ communities access to nature on their doorstep so that they can ‘enjoy nature’. Enjoyment is emotional and physical access to nature on the doorstep (so that it is there to notice and enjoy everyday) is also a key part of developing a psychological connection.

Access wise, the positive news is that nature connectedness is more consistent across demographics where physical access may be compromised. It is relatively consistent across socio-economic groups (AB = 64; C1 = 60; C2 = 60; DE = 61) and levels in the non-Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population are much the same (61) as the BAME population (63). We can all have a love of nature, which is further reason for fair physical access.

Where nature connection does differ significantly is between men (58) and women (64). And between adolescents (47) or young adults compared to other age groups (63). So the question of access might be how do we help provide men and adolescents with emotional access and connection to nature?

As ever, it’s not straightforward. In the first instance, for some, nature is a place to help manage emotions, rather than develop an emotional connection. Recently, we published the results of our work with YMCA residents who took part in a 9-week programme delivered by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. The programme consisted of one full day per week getting involved with nature conservation skills in natural environments that participants had limited access to. The people taking part may have experienced homelessness, abuse, mental health problems, substance misuse, self-harm or exploitation. Those taking part talked of being ‘away’ from the stressors of complex lives and finding emotional space and calm. Given their circumstances, nature was a place away, a place to help manage emotions rather than develop an emotional connection – although a growing respect for nature did start to emerge.

We know that some people find managing their emotions difficult and in other research we’ve found that easier emotional regulation plays a part in explaining how nature connectedness benefits wellbeing. Further, the benefits from easier emotional regulation were not associated with those from emotional engagement, highlighting the different roles and reasons for psychological access to nature.

In sum, rightly so, there is a growing focus on overcoming the barriers to physical access to nature for health and to help manage emotions for mental wellbeing. But physical access is also a step to psychological access to nature and emotional connection for worthwhile and sustainable living. Just as the biopsychosocial model gives a better understanding of health, a more nuanced understanding of access can deliver better outcomes – with benefits to physical health, mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

 

Richardson, M., Richardson, E., Hallam, J., & Ferguson, F. J. (2020). Opening doors to nature: Bringing calm and raising aspirations of vulnerable young people through nature-based intervention. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(3), 284–297. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000148

 

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Applying the Pathways to Nature Connectedness at Societal Scale

The climate emergency and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human-nature relationship is failing. The scale of these inter-related issues requires a new relationship with nature. Bringing about that new relationship with nature requires interventions and approaches that effect large changes at scale across society. In our latest paper we propose an approach to creating a new relationship with nature at a societal scale based on improving nature connectedness using a framework called the ‘pathways to nature connectedness’. The paper published open access in Ecosystems & People suggests how the pathways can be applied at various leverage points across policy areas such as education, health, housing, arts, health & transport. It’s a long read at around 10,000 words, so this blog presents a summary of some key aspects.

What is nature connectedness and why does it matter?

The psychological construct of nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with nature. It can be increased through carefully designed interventions to prompt engagement with nature – such as noticing the good things in nature. Nature connectedness matters because it brings benefits for both humans and nature; it is a causal factor in improved mental wellbeing, increased pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours. The evidence of the benefits to wellbeing is such that it is argued that nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. The importance of the construct is further illustrated by proposals for its inclusion in the Gallup World Poll (GWP) which has an international reputation as a tool for global decision-makers.

Calls for ‘reconnection with nature’ have increased, but have been vague, with fragmentation around what nature connection is and with little concrete guidance towards achieving societies that are more connected to nature. The psychological construct of nature connectedness helps with the current diversity of approaches to understanding people’s connection with nature. It provides a measurable focus within this fragmentation, with an evidence base of benefits to the wellbeing of both people and nature.

Introducing the Pathways to Nature Connectedness

The pathways to nature connectedness provide a typology of activities that provide a methodological approach for improving human-nature relationships through targeting and increasing nature connectedness – you can find a summary of the 5 pathways (sensory contact, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion) on this postcard, but briefly they are:

·       Senses: Noticing and actively engaging with nature through the senses. Simply listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, or watching the breeze in the trees.

·       Emotion: Engaging emotionally with nature. Simply noticing the good things in nature, experiencing the joy and calm they can bring, and sharing feelings about nature with others.

·       Beauty: Finding beauty in the natural world. Simply taking time to appreciate beauty in nature and engaging with it through art, music or in words.

·       Meaning: Exploring and expressing how nature brings meaning to life. Simply exploring how nature appears in songs and stories, poems and art, or by celebrating the signs and cycles of nature.

·       Compassion: Caring for nature. Simply thinking about what we can do for nature and taking actions that are good for nature, such as creating homes for nature, supporting conservation charities and rethinking our shopping habits.

Rather than a detailed model, the pathways present five overarching types of relationship involved in improving nature connectedness. They can be applied at various points, from individual activities in nature, to nature engagement programmes, to the design of infrastructure and school curricula and beyond to improve relationships between humans and nature on a larger scale. In sum, the pathways provide clear direction of the types of relationship for society to foster.

The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine were pathways to nature connectedness, four were unrelated to nature connectedness. These were fear of nature, dominion over nature, utilitarian use of nature and a purely scientific relationship.

Nature is often seen as a resource (utility), or a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), or nature is presented in terms of facts and figures (science), or as a threat (fear of nature). These types of relationship are common, often emphasised within capitalistic societies and can be seen as essential pathways for human survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – as shown by the red arrow in Figure 1.

The five types of relationship which form the pathways to nature connectedness are included in the green arrow which points towards improved nature connectedness and its benefits: pro-environmental behaviour, pro-nature conservation behaviour and mental wellbeing. Greater focus on the types of relationship with nature that promote nature connectedness can lead to a new, more sustainable, relationship with the natural world.

Figure 1. A graphical summary of the types of human-nature relationships, nature connectedness and their outcomes. Key: Pro-env. = pro-environmental (carbon & resource use reduction); Pro-nature = pro-nature conservation (wildlife habitat creation).

Societal relevance of the pathways approach

The application of the pathways has informed a successful large-scale campaigns (e.g. 30 Days Wild) and visitor experience programming (e.g. at the National Trust and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust). However, a paradigm shift in human-nature relationships is required at a larger scale. But which of the five pathways have greatest societal relevance? The full paper discusses this in detail, but here’s a brief summary.

Figure 2. Types of positive relationship with nature and scale of relevance and leverage. The statistical importance for nature connectedness identified by Lumber et al (2017) is represented by the solid oval. The proposed scale of relevance is represented by the dashed oval.

The relevance of the pathways for individual and societal connectedness to nature, and their potential for application at deep leverage points (more on that later), is represented in Figure 2 which considers the location of connection/leverage points (X-axis) and scale of relevance (Y-axis) for the five types of relationship with nature found to be positive pathways to nature connectedness. Let’s consider the societal relevance of each pathways in turn.

Meaning is related to cultural aspects of our lives that have great resonance at a societal scale. This pathway relates to deeper relationships, the symbolic use of nature to represent ideas, and provides an opportunity for societal change. Cultural programmes could be focused on developing these deeper relationships with nature on a large scale – through the cultural celebration of our relationship with nature and renewed appearance of nature in cultural products – and fundamental societal systems such as health care for example.

Emotions can, and have been, targeted on a large scale (e.g. consumerism) and brought societal scale changes. Emotions are fundamental features of human function. As far back as 1928, Edward Bernays targeted people’s unconscious desires in order to manipulate people towards items they didn’t need – creating modern public relations through appealing to people’s emotions. These ideas helped develop consumerism and self-absorption in Western society.  Edward Bernays recognised the scale of relevance of emotion, using them to mould public desire, shaping a consumer culture and shifting social norms at a societal scale. Through public relations campaigns, emotions could change social norms to a situation where a good life is seen as a nature connected life, rather than a consumerist life. The recent shift from the desire for experiences rather than consumer goods provides an opportunity to promote pathways focused experiences, rather than basing them on dominion and utilitarianism.

Compassion. Although care for nature is an overall goal of a new relationship, Figure 2 suggests that the compassion pathway doesn’t necessarily present opportunities for deep leverage. This is because it is likely that other changes are required first. Those engaged with pro-nature conservation behaviours typically have higher levels of nature connectedness. So before engaging people with pro-nature conservation behaviours that can require personal commitment, there could be a need to increase connectedness through meaning and emotion. However, humans are a social species, our capacity for co-operation emerged from social connectedness and emotional bonds. Therefore, focusing on the similarity of people with nature, rather than focusing on developing concern for nature directly may function as a more effective societal leverage point. For example, research shows that anthropomorphism can drive nature connectedness. The similarity of people and the rest of nature as a common discourse, rather than consumptive and dominance frames are required together with the provision of more opportunities for people to care for wildlife everyday, for example through access to places where people can easily engage in pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Beauty is a strong theme when people are asked to notice the ‘good things in nature’ – however we know that the beauty pathway works together with other pathways, such as when deriving meaning or evoking emotions. So, it is likely that this pathway doesn’t lever transformational change on its own. Rather, beauty needs to be available for sensory contact and wider meaningful engagement with nature.

Sensory contact is a pathway that relates to interaction, therefore there is a need for engagement with a wide variety of nature – which is provided in accessible and everyday places. Of course easily accessible nature does not have to be engaged with, so there is a need to design places, campaigns and activities to prompt that engagement. Nature contact can have a large scale of relevance and bring societal impact on nature connectedness if the engagement is fostered – through cultural programmes for example. When sensory contact is prompted, for example, through noticing the good things in nature or campaigns such as 30 Days Wild, there is evidence of a positive and sustained impact on nature connectedness. These interventions and our other work also highlight that the pathways to nature connectedness rarely work alone. Sensory contact involves noticing beauty, it elicits emotions, brings meaning and can involve care for nature.

Nature Connectedness, System Characteristics and Leverage Points

A truly sustainable future will challenge basic assumptions on the organizing of a society. Leverage points (Meadows, 1999), consider the parts of the system where maximum impact can be gained from small changes. Meadows (1999) describes twelve leverage points from shallow places where interventions are relatively easy to implement, but less impactful on system behaviours, to deep places where interventions are difficult but can deliver transformational change. Abson et al. (2017) note the twelve leverage points fall into four broad groups:

  • The shallowest are system parameters, for example standards.
  • Next, interventions can target feedback loops, the interactions between system elements.
  • Third are social structures that manage feedbacks and parameters.
  • Finally, the deepest group are intentions, the underpinning values and goals that shape the emergent direction of a system.

Where can nature connectedness have greatest leverage? Where can the pathways approach be applied for maximum effect? There’s a more detail in the full paper, but here’s a few examples.

System intentions: values and goals

The values and goals of the system are the deepest leverage points and therefore most important – often simple to write, but most difficult to change. For example, take a look at the priorities of the UK Government’s Department of Education (Sept. 2020):

“We’ll develop world-class education with the following principles:

  • ensure our academic standards match and keep pace with key comparator nations
  • strive to bring our technical education standards in line with leading international systems
  • ensure that education builds character, resilience and well-being”

Standards and well-being are important – but there is no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Revising these principles to include a goal for a sustainable relationship with nature would be a simple change of wording, but very difficult to achieve. Being a deep leverage point, it would though have a great impact on schools, curriculum and teaching.

More widely, facts and research evidence can help establish goals. For example, nature connectedness being four times more important for living a worthwhile life than socio-economic status could help make it a goal for some. However, values come from meaning, which can come from experiences, but also how nature is reflected in society, such as in our models of human well-being.  Formally recognising the value of a right to a close relationship with nature would be very powerful. For example, a close relationship with nature could be considered as a universal human right, similar to the right to family life and social connections. This deep leverage is difficult to achieve, but would be a major contribution to embedding a new relationship with nature through wider society.

System design: institutions and social structures

Social structures manage feedbacks and system parameters – these rules, incentives and constraints create the social environment. Given the climate and biodiversity crises, policy and organisational goals should acknowledge the need for a new relationship with nature. Nature connectedness can be coupled into structures as an institutionalizable target – it is measurable so the nature connectedness of the people an organisation works with could be a strategic priority with associated Key Performance Indicator (KPI). A strategic plan and intention to improve nature connectedness can adopt and apply the pathways to nature connectedness.

A strategic plan for nature?

System feedbacks: the extinction of experience

A key reinforcing feedback loop in relation to human-nature relationships is ‘extinction of experience’.  The on-going reduction in experience of nature permeates culture and society such that social feedback helps reinforce a social norm of reduced experience of nature. Increased urbanisation, especially when poorly designed, reduces the opportunity to engage with nature – reducing positive feedback. This is then reflected in cultural feedback, for example, the decline of references to nature in cultural products – which all adds to loss of orientation to engage with nature. There is potential to shorten feedback related to the five key relationships identified by the pathways, while disrupting feedback loops related to the four non-pathways relationships. This can include measures to strengthen feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature and on the health of the natural world.

System Parameters: standards, policy and infrastructure

Standards, policy and infrastructure provide valuable but weak leverage points. Infrastructure is slow to change, however, policy can help show what is valued and also turns on or off the taps of funding. Policy change may be relatively ineffective in influencing behaviour, but can send a clear message on the types of behaviour that are favoured. Therefore, policy changes can contribute to the deeper paradigm shift required for a healthier relationship between humans and the natural world.

We present more details and recommendations in the full paper, there’s also some ideas in our New Relationship with Nature Briefing here.

Summary and Recommendations

The pathways to nature connectedness provide an important framework to help deliver solutions toward a new relationship with nature. It is proposed that the meaning and emotion pathways to nature connectedness can provide the deep leverage required to increase sensory contact. These three pathways have a large scale of societal relevance and the potential to provide solutions across a range of leverage points to foster closer human-nature relationships. Resulting interventions can also encourage people to engage with the remaining two pathways, to engage with nature’s beauty and to care for nature.

As a basic psychological need, nature connectedness should inform the values and goals of our systems for maximum impact on the human-nature relationship for a sustainable future. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a structured means to inform new societal and institutional goals. Using new narratives to highlight the meaning of nature to humans, such as models of health that unite wildlife and human wellbeing, can provide new values and desirable ‘system goals’. Approaches from mass-consumer persuasion through appealing to people’s emotions can also play a role in influencing values and goals on a large scale.

Changes in system values and goals inform the design of institutions and social structures for a new relationship with nature. As a measurable construct, nature connectedness can be a key performance indicator for institutions, such as those delivering health and wellbeing. Targets can be set and the pathways used to inform strategic plans. For example, including the enjoyment of nature in health and social care delivery.

To help create new social norms, a closer relationship with nature can be integrated into social structures with incentives, such as funding for cultural products and urban design informed by the pathways. More sensory contact, sharing of positive emotions, and structures that shorten system feedback along pathways to nature connectedness can counter the extinction of experience and renew the human-nature relationship. Feedback regarding the positive links between people and local nature for wellbeing, and on the health of the natural world can also be enhanced.

Standards and policy provide weak leverage points, but many opportunities to apply the pathways to nature connectedness. For example, education curricula can be informed by the pathways, transport policy can be used to promote pathways relationships and planning policy can help turn public spaces into places that prompt sensory contact, celebrate nature, and elicit positive emotions through engaging with nature. Arts policy should recognise the close links between cultural expression and the pathways to nature connectedness.

In sum, as humans we are deeply affected by emotions and stories with meaning. We want to believe our lives are worthwhile and meaningful. The power of emotions and trust in shared stories have been used to bring millions of people together, to create consumer culture and ultimately disconnect us from nature, damaging the natural world in the process. However, as a species, our story is nature and for a sustainable future, nature needs to re-emerge as the human story through societal values, social structures, feedback and policy. The pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for improving human-nature relationships within that context.

 

Enjoyed this blog? Try reading A New Relationship with Nature: what it means and what we can do.

 

M. Richardson, J. Dobson, D. J. Abson, R. Lumber, A. Hunt, R. Young & B. Moorhouse (2020) Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: a leverage points perspective, Ecosystems and People, 16:1, 387-401, DOI: 10.1080/26395916.2020.1844296

 

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Moments not Minutes: The Trouble with Time and Green Prescriptions

Might green prescriptions undermine the benefits of spending time in nature? That was the research story that made the news last week with completely misleading headlines like “Green prescriptions don’t work”. The story was based on research published in the journal Scientific Reports. The cross-sectional study investigated whether time in nature has the potential to help people with mental health issues. The press release suggested that giving people with existing mental health conditions a ‘green prescription’, may undermine some of the benefits. However, as we will see below, there’s more to the study and there is good empirical evidence that well-designed green prescriptions do work.

The aim of the research was to understand people’s motivations to spend time in nature, how often they visited green/blue space, and how social pressure influenced the emotional experience of the most recent blue space visit. The study collected data from more than 18,000 people in 18 different countries. The report acknowledges the work was based on a cross-sectional survey of visit frequency and experience of a recent blue space visit, rather than a pre-post evaluation of specific green prescriptions.

Is a nature visit about time spent or emotional engagement?

Encouragingly, there was evidence from the findings that some people with mental health issues use nature as part of their own symptom self-management. Previous research has found that people seek out nature for emotional regulation when happy and sad – a topic I considered more deeply in a 2019 paper. The findings also suggested that although pressure to spend time in nature can encourage visits, that pressure can also undermine the emotional and wellbeing benefits of time in nature – highlighted in the press release. The more pressure people felt to visit nature, the less motivated they were and levels of anxiety increased.

In our large scale evaluation of a green prescription based on improving nature connectedness (the closeness of our emotional relationship with nature), rather than time in nature and visits, we found that people with mental health issues reported sustained and clinically significant improvements in mental health. People who reported spending less time in nature before the study benefitted more. Using a smartphone app (now available within Go Jauntly), we asked people to notice and write down the good things in nature, rather than prescribing visits to, or time in, nature – although we designed the app to prompt people to notice nature when they were near a green space if possible. A nature connection and the ‘three good things in nature’ approach is now part of a green prescription pilot being run by RSPB Scotland in collaboration with NHS Lothian’s charity partner, the Edinburgh and Lothians Health Foundation.

A nature connectedness, or moments and minutes approach is also supported by very recent work yet to be published. We’ve found that an audio meditation based on the pathways to nature connectedness improved the wellbeing benefits of time spent in nature. Similarly, in another recent study people asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” on a 15 minute walk in nature found greater awe, joy, pro-social and positive emotions than those that just walked in nature.  This also made the news, but again many of the headlines focussed on time and the benefits of a 15 minute walk, rather than the benefits of developing an emotional connection with nature during that walk.

There seems to be an assumption that green prescriptions are simply about visiting nature or spending time in nature. After all, a great deal of valuable research that has shown that nature is beneficial for human wellbeing uses time and visits to nature as a variable. However, research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness. Time and visit frequency are both straightforward to measure, they provide a reasonable proxy for nature connectedness, but when nature connectedness is added to the model time matters less.

In a study using similar methods to the work described above, we’ve found that nature connectedness  was important over and above getting out into nature for eudaemonic wellbeing – living a worthwhile life. Visiting nature was associated with  general health – but not directly to eudaemonic wellbeing. However, nature connectedness influences the way in which people respond to visits and time in nature. This suggests that for health and mental wellbeing interventions are needed that increase both time in, and connection to nature.

All of these results suggest that a more nuanced approach to green prescriptions and human-nature interactions is necessary. It should also be remembered that nature doesn’t have a ‘part-time role’ in wellbeing that prescriptions based on ‘doses’ or visit frequency and time might suggest. Nature is a fundamental, and a close connection to it emerging as a basic psychological need. Green prescriptions need to be carefully designed to consider nature connectedness and the experience in nature, rather than a simple instruction to visit and spend time in nature. Otherwise the prescription might not deliver optimal benefits and undermine motivation for nature-based experiences.

 

Tester-Jones, M., White, M. P., Elliott, L. R., Weinstein, N., Grellier, J., Economou, T., & Nieuwenhuijsen, M. (2020). Results from an 18 country cross-sectional study examining experiences of nature for people with common mental health disorders. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-11. 10.1038/s41598-020-75825-9

Sturm, V. E., Datta, S., Roy, A. R., Sible, I. J., Kosik, E. L., Veziris, C. R., & Miller, B. L. (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. Emotion.

Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101389.

Richardson, M. (2019). Beyond Restoration: Considering Emotion Regulation in Natural Well-Being. Ecopsychology11(2), 123-129.

Details of Tester-Jones et al. (2020) adapted from the press release: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_824180_en.html

 

 

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