An Experiment with a Bird

Over the past few years the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has been focussed on delivering several research projects. Over the summer we found a moment to pause, update our pathways guidance (see below) and plan a team photo. For a group photo we wanted an image that prompted reflection on human-nature relationships, but was also a bit of fun. We could have gone out into nature, but our research shows contact and connection are different – independent and additive. Moving beyond contact to a close relationship with nature is important for human wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Our new group photo was inspired by Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. At first sight this can seem like an odd choice. There are three reasons, two are simple, and the third requires a little more discussion. Firstly, Joseph Wright was from Derby, so is the group. Second, it’s more interesting (and enjoyable to be a part of!) than a standard group photo – it’s an experiment with a wooden bird. Third, in many ways the painting is about the human relationship with nature.

Members of the Nature Connectedness Research Group

Joseph Wright was from Derby, working at a time of scientific enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. The reductionist scientific method focuses on minute and quantifiable factors with straightforward explanations of the data being sought. While it is an objective and informative approach, it should be remembered that it can miss dynamic and complex connections present in natural systems – we can’t measure and control every variable in a complex system. Some argue that the enlightenment and reductionist scientific method led to a separation of humanity from nature. Further, the painting was completed in 1768 towards the start of the Industrial Revolution, the start of unprecedented use of natural resources and fossil fuels. It is a time of increasing urbanicity and key changes to the human relationship with nature.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump shows people gathered to observe an air pump experiment into the nature of air and its ability to support life. The painting shows a cockatiel panicking, perhaps dying, as the air is the pump withdraws the air from the vessel. The witnesses display various emotions, from understandable distress to fascination. The painting reflects a certain type of relationship with nature and the natural world. A relationship of enquiry and knowledge where scientific curiosity overcomes concern for the bird – nature.

The nature of our planet’s atmosphere and impact on all life is a key concern now, a new relationship with nature is needed for a sustainable future. The Nature Connectedness Research Group studies our emotional connection to nature and the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. We have replaced the bird with an artistic representation of nature, the type of pursuit that can help build a connection with nature, for the artist or the viewer. The photograph also includes one of our main research tools, a laptop, which adopts a natural symbol for its brand, just one way that the meaning of nature has changed in our lives and a symbol of the technology that defines us more and more. You might also spot some of the applications of our research, such as the National Trust 50 Things leaflet.

Our new pathways postcard – Let nature be your story

There are many types of relationship with nature, both sustainable and not, and we’ve recently refreshed the guidance on the positive types of relationship identified in our pathways to nature connectedness research in a new postcard (PDF). We’ve also produced a short video to help explain and illustrate the pathways. These help explain the types of activity to foster to improve nature connectedness. They provide an applied framework for those designing programmes, or places, to improve human-nature connectedness – bringing about the benefits to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

For the Nature Connectedness Research Group our story is nature, let nature be your story.

 

 

 

Thank you to Geoffrey Shek and Jay Lawrence for the photography, and to the Dolphin Inn in Derby for the room.

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The Teenage Dip in Nature Connection and Youth Climate Strikes

Earlier this year our new population measure of nature connectedness revealed a sharp dip in nature connection from 10 years of age, reaching a low between 13 and 18, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below and blog. The measure was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK. Independent research by the RSPB and Exeter has found a similar profile.

This ‘teenage dip’ can seem at odds with the youth climate strikes that have been hugely successful in bringing urgent attention to the climate crisis. With the youth of today being deeply concerned about environmental issues, how can they also be disconnected from nature? There are two key factors. First, the different focus of the climate strikes and nature connectedness. Second, the difference between population means and activists.

Nature Connectedness across the lifespan

So, let’s look at the focus of each. Greta Thunberg’s school strike is ‘to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis’ (fridaysforfuture.org). Inspired by Greta Thunberg the UK Student Climate Network’s mission also focuses on action against climate change. Rightly so, U.N. WMO figures show global temperatures are currently on course for a 3-5 degrees Celsius rise by 2100, and it could be higher. Yet many still use the 2C target when explaining the consequences. It’s difficult to know what a 4 degree warmer world would be like, but it could well be the vast majority of humanity would need to live north of London – with insufficient land for food. This situation has been known about for many years, but very little meaningful action has been taken and a UKSCN demand is to communicate the reality.

Nature connectedness is a psychological construct that describes how close an individual’s relationship with nature is – how much they enjoy nature and its beauty, how important it is to them, whether they feel part of nature and if they treat nature with respect. Nature connection leads to pro-environmental behaviours and correlates well with ecological concern – the highly connected are likely to be more concerned about climate change (and have better mental well-being).

So, there’s a clear link, but some key differences in focus. These are highlighted well by looking at the content of Greta Thunberg’s powerful and effective speeches. Nearly 5000 words from www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches produces the word cloud below. Amongst the most frequent words (35 to 11 uses) are climate, people, crisis, emissions, children, future, countries, leaders and carbon. The words nature, wildlife and biodiversity do not appear, although there are six references to extinction.

Word cloud of Greta Thunberg’s speeches

By way of comparison the word cloud below shows 5000 recent words from this blog. The most frequent words (168 to 11 uses) are nature, connectedness, relationship, connection, human, research, people, behaviours, sustainable and future. Climate and biodiversity have 8 uses, wildlife 7.

Word cloud of nature connectedness blogs

The youth climate strikes rightly focuses on the threat to their future and the need for change to reduce carbon emissions. Nature connection is about our relationship with nature – important as the current climate and biodiversity crises stem from a failed relationship with nature and part of the change required is a new relationship, one that increases pro-nature behaviours and can help lead to a new concept of a ‘good life’. The climate strikes are about the threat to our future, nature connection helps describe what a future relationship with the natural world needs to look like.

There’s a need for language that demands action and language that builds a new relationship with nature for a sustainable future – perhaps they need to be different voices, but not competing. This has been highlighted recently by the response to an XR poster that implies a connection to nature is less impacting and humiliating. 

Nature connectedness also helps describe how we’ve ended up in this critical situation. The pathways to nature connectedness highlight the positive relationships with nature, and reveal the negative relationships that have exploited nature to create our modern world – utility, dominion and fear. Nature connectedness should be part of the new curriculum demanded by the UK Student Climate Network.

The second factor that explains the mismatch between the teenage dip in nature connection and the youth climate strikes comes through population means and activists. The dip from 64 at 9 years old to 47 at 14 is in the mean level of nature connection, there are still highly connected teenagers. In previous work we found 46% of children have a low connection and 18% a strong connection with nature. It may well be those supporting the climate action are part of this group, but we don’t have the data to know. However, because of the differences above there won’t be a perfect correlation between connection and climate action. Further, despite the large and impressive numbers at many climate strikes, it represents a small proportion of the teenage population. There are increasingly levels of concern about the environmental crises, but most are not acting on that concern. By increasing connection to nature it’s likely that there would be more people supporting climate action and undertaking pro-environmental behaviours.

So why the teenage dip? Again there’s been little specific research, only recently have a number of studies identified the dip in UK, Canadian, Australian and Chinese populations. However, we know that adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, including the development of self-identity. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and consists of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time nature, and one’s connection with it, loses importance (there’s a lot going on), but also that the climate movement is a group some (including the less connected) identify with and want to be part of.

Let’s hope more join those demanding climate action, to help bring about the urgent action required and also to help create a vision of new relationship with the natural world where a good life is defined by living in greater harmony with nature, rather than consuming the resources produced by exploiting and damaging the environment.

 

 

 

 

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National Parks Landscapes Review: A Meaningful Relationship with Nature

The final report of the National Parks and AONBs Landscapes Review has been published and several elements within it are highly relevant to nature connectedness research and application. For example, the report states that currently ‘The purpose to connect people to nature, and its execution, is too weak’ and proposal 7 states that ‘We need our national landscape bodies to lead the charge in connecting more people to nature’. To do this there needs to be a clear vision of what connection people to nature is – is it simply visits? Or is that connection a long-term relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing?

The good news is that the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has developed a framework to connect people with nature and we’ve applied that nationally – and further afield. The final report also cites our work with The Wildlife Trusts on 30 Days Wild, where we found that the least connected to nature benefit most, which motivates the need to reach out and engage with those people yet to develop a close relationship with nature. Importantly, those benefits are to both people and nature – wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

Let’s look at some of the proposals in the report that link through to nature connectedness research.

Proposal 1 includes a stronger purpose for nature and beauty driven by a new National Landscapes Service. Our research has shown that engaging with nature’s beauty is both a pathway to becoming connected with nature and a route to wellbeing. Further, our work has shown that the public can spot biodiversity and greater biodiversity gives more nature (and beauty) to notice.

The National Landscapes Service (Proposal 25) would ‘Promote consistent, high quality standards in our special places, including overseeing a new professional ranger service and visitor experience’ and ‘Ensure best practices become common everywhere’. This should include an understanding of what a connection with nature is, the difference to contact with nature and how to achieve it using carefully designed engagement activities.

Proposal 8 (supported by the Proposal 13 ranger service) is ‘A night under the stars in a national landscape for every child’. This has made the headlines, but one night doesn’t make a relationship. To meet the aim to connect more people with nature a one-off experience won’t work. It could provide a catalyst, and done well, with a follow-up programme, could be used to develop a closer relationship with nature. This proposal needs to be based on the latest research evidence, rather than falling into traditional approaches that haven’t prevented the current environmental emergency and disconnected population.

The proposal continues: “They should learn how landscapes have inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians. They themselves should be inspired by the lives of their forebears, who have forged this countryside and whose very existence is written into the cultural landscape, and above all they should learn how they too can pick up the baton of nurturing and enhancing what they have inherited. With help from a new National Landscapes Service, we would like to see national landscapes work with the many organisations already involved in this area to provide a clear, consistent offer for meaningful visit that we think should include an overnight stay. It would be a chance for children to meet others from communities they may not normally meet, to learn about the nature that we all rely on, and even enjoy the thrill of a night under the stars.”

There’s a focus on learning when there’s little evidence that knowledge and education deliver the over arching aim of a connection with nature. Rather than a focus on learning, there should be a focus on creating art, poetry and music – through noticing nature, its beauty and telling the story of the meaning and feelings it brings. Rather than a focus on learning the history, help nurture and enhance the present – caring for nature is a pathway to connection. Create a new culture of celebrating our place in nature.

Rather than ‘meaningful’ visit, create a meaningful relationship. Once again there’s a proposal to ‘learn about nature’, instead, bring the enjoyment and wonder of the natural world to the fore. Find stars in the everyday, in the cobwebs, in the leaves, in the birdsong – in the nature children will find everyday at home.

Proposal 10 is for ‘Landscapes that cater for and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing’.  We know that nature is good for people; we’re no different from other species in needing the habitat we evolved to live in. However, this proposal can link through to the aim to connect people to nature. Emerging research shows that a connection with nature and visiting nature bring independent and additive benefits – and the signs are connection is more important than contact.

The proposal goes on to suggest ‘a new role for our national landscapes in helping the health of our nation. At a local level, they should all establish strong relationships with local public health teams, clinical commissioning groups and social prescribing link workers’. Health and wellbeing depends on everyday behaviours. For those local to national parks this is fine, but nature should be part of everyone’s life, everyday. For example, we’ve developed a green prescription that delivered clinically significant increases in mental health through noticing everyday urban nature.

In sum, the current environmental emergencies show that for a sustainable future we need a new relationship with nature. So, it’s great that the final report highlights the need to connect more people with nature. However, the aim of that connection needs to be defined and the route to it evidence based. Whether it’s humans or nature, one night doesn’t make a relationship. And we also know that learning facts and figures doesn’t make a close relationship with nature. Successful and long-lasting relationships are based on noticing nature and its beauty, emotions, meaningful experiences and care – the pathways to nature connection. For success in reconnecting people with nature through national parks there is a need to move beyond one-off experiences and visits, to evidence based interventions that have delivered improved nature connection. National parks and AONBs can perhaps kick-start and boost these relationships , but the experiences cannot be isolated and the national parks should help build an everyday relationships with nature as part of a wider programme.

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A Close Relationship with Nature: A Basic Human Right for a Sustainable Future?

The human relationship with the rest of nature matters for our well-being, yet the climate and environment emergencies show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. To fix it we need a new more connected relationship that recognises that we are part of nature. This is a relationship that will bring both pro-nature behaviours and improved mental wellbeing – a good life.

Sir Bob Watson was lead scientist of the IPBES landmark health-check of life on Earth – the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems published this year. The report showed that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. In an interview earlier this year he said we need to ask how do we become more in tune with nature? What makes us happy? How do we relate to nature?

These are the right questions to ask as 2019 research provides evidence for a causal link between a close relationship with nature and pro-nature behaviours. The science of nature connectedness has delivered a number of key insights in 2019 and can help answer those questions:

  • What makes us happy? Naturally, there are many things, but systematic review evidence from 2019 shows that nature connectedness brings two key types of happiness – feeling good and functioning well – to levels above accepted benchmarks.
  • How do we become more in tune with nature? Here we could ask, how do we become more connected to nature? Our intervention research (again from 2019) shows we can tune in through simply noticing the good things in nature, through the senses. And doing so make us feel significantly better.
  • How do we relate to nature? A connected relationship with nature is based upon finding beauty in nature, experiences in nature that evoke positive emotions and bring meaning, and activities that involve caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.

We need a closer relationship with nature in order to save nature. A closer relationship with nature helps bring a happy and meaningful life. With these essential benefits should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature?

How to find a positive relationship with nature in the city?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention nature or the environment. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration on the Environemt (1992) states that “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”. The principle notes the human role in sustainability and ties human health to living in harmony with nature. Of course, productive living is a necessary part of life, but entitlement to a close relationship with nature is clear. The key is a sustainable balance between them. Something our pathways to nature connection research revealed – the activities in nature needed for a close relationship differed from those that have exploited nature, built our modern world and caused the environmental crisis.

A close relationship with nature requires a healthy natural world

In another 2019 paper, Jane Hurly and Gordon J. Walker from the University of Alberta have argued that the human need for nature connectedness is a basic psychological need. They reviewed the compelling evidence of the benefits of nature connectedness and examined if it met published criteria for basic psychological needs.

Also from 2019, Alexia Barrable from the University of Dundee argues that nature connectedness should be a distinct goal of early childhood education. Alexia notes the focus on learning about the natural environment and spending time outdoors, but that the distinct construct of nature connectedness has not been considered in detail. Further research from 2019 shows that it’s not just young children. Evidence from the UK, Canada and China shows that we know children’s relationship with nature breaks down from 10 years of age, taking 20 years to recover. This suggests that nature connectedness, living in harmony with nature for a sustainable future, should be a goal of educational institutions from early childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood.

So if there were a basic human right to a closer relationship with nature how we would get there? We’ve often thought of our pathways to nature connectedness in terms of activities for individuals and small groups, but recently we’ve been thinking about how the pathways can inform societal changes that could allow and prompt the types of activities and values linked to a closer relationship with nature.

Another 2019 paper starts to consider this issue. As an editorial for a special issue, it’s limited in scope, but the recommendations give a flavour of thinking that we’re currently developing in other work. Our Frontiers special issue, One Health: The Well-being Impacts of Human-Nature Relationships,  responds to two interrelated issues confronting humanity today: the health and well-being of populations and the state of the natural environment.

We discuss the ways to improve the human-nature relationship through interventions, campaigns, activities, curricula, green infrastructure and urban design. Bringing together artists, planners, designers, and researchers to create places that afford a connection to nature. There’s scope across the full range of policy areas and at various leverage points, for now examples are provided in the recommendations distilled from the research in the special issue:

  • Everyday experiences of nature matter. Provide green spaces, close to home and work, with opportunities and prompts for people across the lifespan to notice nature and its beauty.
  • Encourage a broader range of seasonal experiences in nature, of various durations, at various times and calling on insight from a range of approaches to human-nature relationships (e.g., Stoic and Buddhist Traditions; nature connectedness).
  • Provide habitats for a variety of wildlife. Biodiversity matters for human health. Micro-variables such as birds, plants, wildlife, and native species create a bond between people and natural places.
  • Provide nature based therapeutic environments.
  • For those with limited access to nature, provide imagery and VR alternatives.

2019 has seen some breakthrough nature connectedness research and as a measurable psychological construct it provides a great focal point – a basic psychological need that captures the human-nature relationship. Especially as we have pathways and interventions that can improve nature connectedness – with causal links through to pro-nature behaviours and mental well-being.

So, should there be a basic human right to a close relationship with nature? The evidence is clear; the well-being of future populations and the planet depends on closer, positive and sustainable human-nature relationships. We also need a new concept of what constitutes a good life, one that recognises the vital role of nature to human life. The first principle of the United Nations Rio Declaration (1992) already captures that need for harmony, but human rights don’t cover the human relationship with the natural world – despite nature being essential for human life. And of course, a right to a close relationship with nature would require a healthy natural world.

 

 

Hurly, J., & Walker, G. J. (2019). Nature in our lives: Examining the human need for nature relatedness as a basic psychological need. Journal of Leisure Research, 1-21.

Barrable, A. (2019). The Case for Nature Connectedness as a Distinct Goal of Early Childhood Education. International Journal of Early Childhood6(2), 59-70.

Mackay, C. M., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology65, 101323.

McEwan, K., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Ferguson, F. J., & Brindley, P. (2019). A Smartphone App for Improving Mental Health through Connecting with Urban Nature. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health16(18), 3373.

Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., & McEwan, K. (2019). The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-23.

Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D., … & White, M. (2019). A Measure of Nature Connectedness for Children and Adults: Validation, Performance, and Insights. Sustainability, 11(12), 3250.

Brymer, E., Freeman, D. E. L., & Richardson, M. (2019). One Health: The wellbeing impacts of human-nature relationships. Frontiers in psychology10, 1611.

Krettenauer, T., Wang, W., Jia, F., & Yao, Y. (2019). Connectedness with nature and the decline of pro-environmental behavior in adolescence: A comparison of Canada and China. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101348.

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The link between Nature Connectedness and Pro-Nature Behaviours

The link between nature connectedness and human well-being has been made in a couple of systematic reviews, most recently in our paper, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Now we have a meta-analysis showing the link between nature connectedness and pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs). This was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (PDF version).

Caroline Mackay and Michael Schmitt from Simon Fraser University in Canada gathered together 92 research studies involving over 27,000 people and found “compelling evidence for a strong and robust association between nature connection and PEB”. Adjusting for publication bias, they also found a significant causal effect of nature connection on PEB. They concluded that nature connection is a promising avenue for promoting PEB.

So, we now have good evidence that nature connectedness is a route to both human and nature’s wellbeing – and remember nature connectedness is the strength of a person’s relationship with nature, it’s not simply visiting and being in nature. At the University of Derby we’ve developed specific interventions to improve nature connectedness and the pathways framework to help people design their own, moving beyond traditional knowledge and learning focussed approaches.

Mackay and Schmitt’s research had robust inclusion criteria and defined nature connection as the sense of “oneness” with nature and the studies included in the analysis used standard nature connectedness scales and related emotional connection scales. They defined PEB as actions that would likely benefit the environment, measured by self-reports of PEB, intentions to engage in PEB, or observed behaviour recorded in a laboratory. They also coded private or public sphere behaviours, together with the different measures of PEB, including observed behaviour – the results provide good evidence that nature connection relates to actual behaviour.

The correlational part of the study could not provide evidence of a causal effect of nature connection on behaviour, so they also looked at empirical manipulations too. They found a publication bias in favour of studies with larger and more positive effects. However, they addressed this bias by including unpublished studies. They still found a significant causal effect of nature connectedness on PEB.

The causal effects in the analysis of experimental studies were weaker than expected given the relatively large effect sizes in the correlational data. The authors explain this through the discrepancy between how nature connectedness is measured and how it is manipulated. The experimental manipulations of nature connectedness often focussed on contact with or exposure to nature, yet from our pathways to nature connectedness we know it’s more than exposure – it is increased through sensory contact, meaningful experiences involving emotions, beauty and care for nature – this can be achieved by simple noticing the good things in nature.

Pro-nature Behaviour

It’s interesting to note that there’s no discussion of the difference between PEB and pro-nature conservation behaviours – that is positive actions with impact on local wildlife versus PEBs that are often positive inactions that indirectly impact wildlife via reduction of carbon footprint and resource use. There is a huge disparity in awareness, coverage and psychological research into climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet, “Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth,” Prof Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. In some on-going work we know pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours are related, but different from a behavioural perspective. Surprisingly, given the crisis of biodiversity loss we’ve been unable to find a scale focussed on pro-conservation behaviours, so we’ve developed one – the Pro-Conservation Behaviour Scale (ProCoBS) – which we’ll aim to publish and make available soon.

In sum, the Mackay and Schmitt research fills a key gap in the evidence to support the importance of nature connectedness through finding a significant causal effect of nature connection on PEB. It shows that nature connectedness is a route to nature’s wellbeing and  we have access to interventions and approaches to improving nature connectedness.

 

Mackay, C. M., & Schmitt, M. T. (2019). Do people who feel connected to nature do more to protect it? A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 65, 101323.

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Nature Connectedness: Pro-nature behaviours and the ‘Teenage Dip’ – Results from a population survey

Climate change and biodiversity loss suggests a failing relationship between people and the rest of nature. There is a need for a new and sustainable relationship, one that benefits the natural world, but can also benefit human well-being. Given the apparent benefits to well-being and the influence on pro-nature behaviours, nature connectedness is emerging as an important construct that can help develop a more sustainable relationship with the natural world. Importantly, nature connectedness is defined, can be measured and increased through large-scale campaigns. Our latest paper in the journal Sustainability reports on our new population measure of nature connectedness (the NCI) and the insights it has provided. This blog provides a brief summary.

With the need for a new human relationship with the rest of nature and growing interest in a policy context (e.g. the 25YEP), population measures of nature connectedness are needed. Although a range of measures for nature connectedness are available, none of these measures would be suitable for use in a national survey context due to the number, length, and complexity of item wording. Nor are these measures suitable for use with both adults and children, which would be necessary to allow patterns across the lifespan to be monitored and offer the potential for longitudinal research. To meet the need for population level data on nature connectedness, a collaboration of partners developed a short, simple measure suitable for use with both children and adults. The new measure, the Nature Connection Index (NCI), was developed and tested through use in the existing omnibus survey the MENE survey, which has accredited National Statistic status in the UK.

During development of the Nature Connectedness Index (NCI) item selection considered people’s affective and experiential relationship with nature. A framework to inform the item themes within the NCI was provided by the pathways to nature connectedness: emotion, beauty, contact, meaning and compassion.  A weighted points index was developed so that the index ran from zero to a maximum score of 100 in line with expectations for a national indicator approach. This improved dispersion, producing more even percentiles and differentiation in the middle range. A spreadsheet that converts raw scores to the weighted index is avialable via the link below. More detail of the development process is available in the paper.

The six items of the NCI (answered on a 7-point response scale, “completely agree” to “completely disagree”) – full PDF version with scoring spreadsheet:

1—I always find beauty in nature

2—I always treat nature with respect

3—Being in nature makes me very happy

4—Spending time in nature is very important to me

5—I find being in nature really amazing

6—I feel part of nature

The MENE data included responses from 3568 adults aged 16 to 95 years (mean age was 49.98 years; SD = 20.05; 1826 female respondents and 1742 male respondents) and 351 children aged 7 to 15 years with 177 female respondents and 174 males. Females scored significantly higher (64.21, SD = 27.36) than males (57.96, SD = 28.08). The mean NCI for the non-Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population was 60.60 (SD = 27.81; n = 2761) and 63.06 (SD = 28.06; n = 807) for the BAME population.

The data revealed the NCI worked as a measure of nature connectedness for both children and adults and revealed some key insights. Firstly, the mean level across the population (61) and a sharp dip in connection with nature into the teenage years, with a slow recovery to the adult population mean at around 30 years old – see the chart below. This is significant as a great deal of focus is on children’s disconnect from nature, we now know when that begins and how long the recovery takes.

Mean nature connectedness scores across the lifespan

The size and suddenness of the drop in levels of nature connectedness from 10 to 15 years of age is notable. Although cross-sectional, rather than longitudinal, it seems likely that the profile represents developmental changes or situational factors, rather than transitory events affecting children born between the years 2000 and 2008. Adolescence is a time of many developmental changes, the development of self-identity and the emotional regulation required for successful social relationships. The self is a key aspect of nature connectedness and lower nature connectedness is related to difficulties in emotional regulation. Identity formation sees childhood characteristics merge with emerging adolescent traits, and is theorized to consist of a series of stages alongside coping with, for example, physical growth, group acceptance, love, and career choices. It may be that during this time, nature and one’s connection with nature, may lose relevance and importance. We know that greater interest in the self, e.g. through ‘selfie taking’ is linked to lower nature connectedness. At a time of disconnect, perhaps schools should be sharing the 5 Ways to Natural Well-being and how moving beyond ones self and tapping into the secret network of nature can help manage emotions in order to feel good and function well. With the added bonus of bringing about increases in pro-nature behaviours.

How do teenage kicks relate to the teenage dip?

Moving on to situational factors, children within the UK sample are also subject to external changes, such as the move from a primary to secondary school environment. This transition matches the timing of the drop in nature connectedness well. At secondary school there is a swift focus on GCSE grades and the ‘core’ academic subjects such as English, maths and science. Science can bring about an abstraction of nature as its parts become labels, functional units within processes to be learnt. Research shows that a science and knowledge based relationship with nature is not a pathway to connectedness. Nature, and critically the human relationship with it, needs to be core within the curriculum, through science, humanities and the arts. Finally, outside of school, children change their use and requirements of nature and natural spaces as they grow older. For example, natural environments such as woodlands can provide opportunities for developing a sense of identity, but this is can be poorly understood and tolerated by the local community, landowners and managers.

Further research is required to identify the factors found to be associated with the adolescent disconnect. This will inform efforts to prevent the decline or facilitate re-connection. Such efforts to improve nature connectedness can be based on activities that operationalise the pathways to nature connectedness, such as our ‘3 Good Things in Nature’ intervention. It has been found nature connectedness can be increased by including affective elements in outdoor education programs (Braun & Dierkes, 2017), whereas a more traditional outdoors adventure program did not increase nature connectedness (Williams et al., 2018). The drop in nature connectedness cannot be solely addressed by occasional education programs though, given the climate emergency the solution needs to be a core and everyday topic delivered within greener school grounds designed to create habitats for connection. Given the recent school strikes for climate regular follow-up surveys can help track changes in the profile across the lifespan.

The research also provides insight into how strong nature connectedness needs to be to deliver the pro-environmental benefits required for a sustainable future. The table below shows the most straightforward behavior, recycling, is associated with a relatively modest NCI of 63, just above the population mean. Whereas the NCI of the 5% of people giving up their time to volunteer to help the environment is 76. The correlation between percentage of participation in the ten behaviors and the NCI of those participating was 0.97. This suggests that the behaviors requiring greater commitment (resulting in less participation) are strongly associated with greater NCI.

Mean NCI and participation in pro-environmental behaviors captured by MENE.

Differences between yes and no responses were all significant – meaning those involved in pro-environmental behaviours have a significantly closer connection with nature. Finally, those that strongly agree with the statement “I am concerned about damage to the natural environment” scored a mean NCI of 76. Finally, those with the maximum NCI score of one hundred were significantly happier, more satisfied with life, and less anxious, than those scoring below the maximum.

In sum, the research found the NCI to be a reliable and valid scale that offers a short, simple alternative to other measures of nature connectedness, particularly for populations including both children and adults, measured face to face or online. The utility of the NCI for exploring key issues for a sustainable future is also supported by the associations with various pro-environmental behaviors. Importantly, the NCI also provides a tool that can be used to reveal changes in nature connectedness across the lifespan. With the critical global issues of climate change and biodiversity loss symptomatic of human disconnection with nature, there is a growing interest in understanding and improving people’s connection to nature. As always more research is required, but time is tight. For now the data suggests a mean NCI above 70 is a minimum required to help deliver a sustainable future. That’s at least 15% above the current mean level of 61, with a 25% increase to 76 associated with the meaningful attitudes and behaviours that would make a sustainable future more acceptable and likely. Increases of this magnitude have been delivered (using the NCI and other measures) through 30 Days Wild, the engagement campaign run each June by the Wildlife Trusts. This approach delivers the best results for those that start out with lower nature connectedness, but they are less likely to take part. With the right approach, nature connectedness can be increased, but ways to reach none nature lovers are urgently needed.

 

Project partners: Natural England, Historic England, National Trust, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and The Wildlife Trusts.

 

Richardson, M., Hunt, A., Hinds, J., Bragg, R., Fido, D., Petronzi, D. Barbett, L., Clitherow, T. and White, M. (2019). A Measure of Nature Connectedness for Children and Adults: Validation, Performance, and Insights. Sustainability. 11(12), 3250; https://doi.org/10.3390/su11123250

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How nature helps manage our emotions

The role of nature in the regulation of emotions is often overlooked despite evidence that people seek out nature for the regulation of emotions and evidence that restoration-based accounts do not explain all the well-being benefits derived from nature. My latest paper considers how nature helps manage our emotions for wellbeing and what it means for urban design. The paper was published recently in the journal Ecopsychology and the final version is available from the journal, or the pre-review version is available here for free. If you don’t fancy reading all 5000 words and the wider evidence to support the account of health and well-being benefits of nature through balancing emotions, this blog provides a brief introduction.

To help deliver programmes to improve well-being through nature there is a need to understand the mechanisms for the benefits. This allows various stakeholders to understand and promote the well-being benefits of nature and develop effective interventions such as green and social prescriptions. More widely, in the context of the crisis in biodiversity, it is important to provide narratives that show that nature matters for human well-being. To complement restorative theories and to aid the understanding and dissemination of nature’s role in the successful regulation of emotions required for well-being, the article provides an account of the health benefits humans derive from the natural world based on maintaining well-being through emotional balance.

It’s important to remember that emotions aren’t just feelings and by-products of life, they are fundamental features of human function. Features of our nervous system, heart and brain. As different emotions come and go, they shape and direct what we do. Regulating emotions is a very important and almost constant function of human life. It helps us respond to and deal with everyday demands in an appropriate way. Research shows that our ability to keep our emotions regulated is important for well-being.

The three-circle model of emotion regulation (see below) was developed by Gilbert (2005; 2014). As a model, it is a simplification of complex physiological processes, but it is useful to explain how the regulation of emotions are related to well-being. Given the context of wellbeing and the wider natural world, the model has been adapted with elements of nature used to represent both the three types of emotion (see drive, contentment and threat below) and the emotions nature may evoke. This is intended to provide an accessible model that helps explains how exposure to, and a connection with the natural world affects our emotional regulation and mood.

The three dimensions of our emotion regulation system are represented by 3 circles. Described below by a falcon for drive. A bird at rest for calm. And a wild boar for threat. Each day we can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the bird). Each circle brings different feelings such as anxiety (the boar), joy (the falcon), and calm (the bird). Each circle also brings different motivations such as avoid (the boar), pursue (the falcon) and rest (the bird). The circle of arrows represents the interplay between the emotions. The arrows to the side summarise how the model can explain the positive physiological responses found from exposure to nature. Namely, measured responses to forest bathing, awe inspiring natural beauty, and viewing beautiful roses.

For wellbeing we need a balance between the three circles. Feeling good and functioning well comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. Sometimes theses emotions become unbalanced. Perhaps if we’re constantly driven and pressured to do well at work or school, with little time for calm, rest and connection with friends. This can reduce our positive emotions and our threat response can become overactive. We can become anxious when simply receiving an email from the boss for example. Many of us know that time in nature after a difficult day is beneficial.

Through helping balance our moods, nature helps maintain positive emotions through greater resilience and enhanced immune function, therefore also providing a mechanism to explain the long-term benefits of nature exposure.  The model, and underpinning research, also highlight the interconnectedness between people and the rest of nature, fitting a wider narrative about human embeddedness in the ecosystem.

In an increasingly urban world with growing demands on health services, public health can be improved through relational thinking about people and nature. With policies on green prescriptions and improving urban green infrastructure for well-being, it is important to provide explanatory mechanisms that can inform policy and planning. Theories of well-being based purely on restoration can suggest short-term public health interventions and the provision of pockets of green space  to enable urban dwellers to receive a dose of nature. This can result in the continuation of a culture of occasional visits to special green spaces and traditional relationships with nature that have failed and seen a decline in the state of nature – rather than developing a deeper, more sustainable, relationship with nature.

Understanding how exposure to nature impacts our bodies and how this links through to mental well-being helps establish the types of activities in nature that are most beneficial. Exposure to nature is emotional – emotion is the constant companion of sensation with feelings, rather than thoughts coming first when we encounter it. Such knowledge and models can guide us, for example in the types of natural spaces we provide for people – moving from green spaces, to green places where a soothing contentment in nature can be found. Realising we can move beyond identifying nature to finding joy and calm – and balance in nature.

The paper suggests that there is a need for regular and sustained engagement with nature within biodiverse spaces to maintain well-being and resilience. This has wider implications, from the need for networks of green corridors to help reverse the decline in biodiversity to cultural aspects of green cities, such as moving beyond exposure to purposefully engaging with nature (e.g. urban equivalents of forest-bathing and symbolic celebrations of nature across the seasons).

Further still, this approach can inform well-being beyond cities, the importance of beautiful and awe inspiring landscapes, and their role in emotional regulation and wellness. As an established model, the three-circle based account provides a convincing, yet easily accessible narrative, to help influence decision makers and inform practitioners of the longer-term benefits of nature and human interconnectedness with nature. Given the crises in both mental well-being and planetary health, narratives that show nature matters are important as we seek to develop a new relationship between people and the rest of the natural world.

 

PS – There is also a story of our evolution to be told. The branches of the nervous system can be linked to different evolutionary responses. For example, visceral reptiles simply responding to threats and opportunities to the more evolved self-soothing and social behaviours of mammals. This provides a link between time in nature, physiological state, emotions, psychological experience and social behaviour.

 

Gilbert, P. ed. (2005). Compassion: Conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. Routledge, Hove.

Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology53, 6-41.

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