Mental Health Awareness Week – Nature

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year is Nature. I’ve been working with the Mental Health Foundation on the associated research report, some activities for the week and events that take place during the week. There are a number of resources to get involved and the full research report we worked on is available here.

The first half of this blog includes ways people can take part in the week. The second half outlines recommendations from the Mental Health and Nature Policy Briefing on what needs to happen more widely – available here.

What you can do…

During Mental Health Awareness Week we’re asking everyone to #ConnectWithNature to support their mental health – bringing nature into your daily life can really make a difference. We know that:

  • Being around nature is good for our mental health
  • Connecting with nature can help prevent mental health problems
  • Everyone should have access to nature to achieve good mental health for all

During the week we’d like people to recognise and grow their connection with nature. Whether you’re out for a walk, on your way to work, or spending the day indoors, take a moment to notice and celebrate nature in your daily life. To help there are some ‘top tips’ and a nature journal to download.

You might also find some inspiration in the resources we put together to support mental wellbeing during the coronavirus restrictions, here you’ll find:

  • Noticing the ‘Good Things in Nature’
  • How to Explore your relationship with nature
  • An audio nature meditation
  • Immersive Virtual Nature

What more needs to happen…

The Mental Health and Nature Policy Briefing from the Mental Health Foundation gives an overview of key issues and sets out detailed policy recommendations. In their associated survey they found a clear public appetite for change. Three quarters (75%) of people think the Government should be aiming to encourage people to do more to connect with nature. The briefing notes that when measured together, a meaningful connection with nature is often more important than visits to, and time spent in nature. Therefore, the report makes the case for “prioritising connection with nature as the main goal for our nature and mental health policies”. The recommendations for the ways that Government policy can facilitate greater nature connection fall into five areas.

1 – Facilitating connection with nature

Recent evidence into the contribution of nature visits and nature connection shows that it is connection that best explains key mental wellbeing outcomes. There is a need to move beyond access to nature to engaging with the natural world. Therefore, the briefing recommends that nature connection is the core principle that drives all policies relating to nature and mental health.

2 – Protecting the natural environment and restoring biodiversity

As my blog on recent research showed, the UK is not a nation of nature lovers and that’s strongly associated with low levels of biodiversity. The Mental Health and Nature Policy Briefing recommends the UK governments set ambitious interim and outcome targets to halt the decline of species and habitats in the UK by 2030. Then the delivery of biodiversity gain should prioritise deprived areas to bring the wellbeing benefits of nature to the communities that need it most.

3 – Improving access to nature

Clearly, access to nature is necessary to build a deeper connection, the report recommends access to nature should be guaranteed for the widest range of people. This includes improving safety and the quality of green spaces and parks.

4 – Using urban design to improve the visibility and availability of nature

Beyond formal green spaces and parks there is a need to facilitate building an every day connection with nature. These recommendations note how urban nature matters. It is recommended that the National Planning Policy Framework in England is updated to go beyond “conserving and enhancing” the existing natural environment to creating new, visible nature for the purpose of supporting people’s mental health and wellbeing.

5 – Building a life-long relationship with nature

Our research that shows a pronounced dip in young people’s connection with nature is noted and policies that build a long-term connection with nature for children are recommended. This includes outdoor activities at school, with nature being a part of the learning process. School grounds should provide access to nature and the Government should review and improve natural spaces of secondary schools.

The Mental Health and Nature Policy Briefing is excellent and builds on our previous guidance. I recommend reading the report in full, remembering to take a break and notice nature while you do.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Nation of Nature Lovers?

One of the findings of a major new research study published in Scientific Reports shows that the UK is not a nation of nature lovers. Our supposed love of nature is often expressed, from our poets, to naturalists, in our love of nature documentaries, and millions being members of nature conservation organisations. However, this new research across 18 countries suggests strongly that in reality the UK has a failing relationship with nature. We visit nature much less than people in other countries. Our connection to the rest of nature is much lower than elsewhere.


That was the result that grabbed my attention, but the research did much more. So, in sum, before returning to our supposed love of nature, the survey of 16,000 people explored associations between mental health, exposure to different natural settings and nature connectedness, across season and country. The research found that people who lived in greener/coastal neighbourhoods reported higher wellbeing, but this association largely disappeared when recreational visits were controlled for. Frequency of recent recreational visits to nature were all positively associated with well-being – Its worth noting that levels of noticing nature weren’t included in this study, but our recent research found noticing nature explained wellbeing better than recent visits’. Nature connectedness was also positively associated with positive wellbeing and was, along with green space visits, associated with a lower likelihood of using medication for depression. By contrast inland-blue space visits were associated with a greater likelihood of using anxiety medication.

From a nature connectedness perspective, the authors conclude that the “Results also offer support for initiatives e.g. education programs, aimed at increasing levels of psychological connectedness to the natural world, irrespective of direct exposure, for mental health as well as ecological reasons,” – although I’d replace ‘education’ with ‘engagement’ it’s good to have further confirmation that work in this area needs to go beyond access and visits. As we’ve seen in recent research, when considered in concert with visits to nature, nature connectedness plays an often more significant role in mental wellbeing, pro-nature and pro-environmental behaviours.

Returning to the headline, and looking at the two charts from the paper, the UK was amongst the lowest nations for nature connectedness (16th of 18) and nature visits (17th of 18) – and also wellbeing (17th of 18). The level of nature connectedness was 20% below the highest nation. It’s natural to ask, why?

Country level relationship between positive well-being (0–100) and Green space visits in last 4 weeks. From White et al. (2021).

 

Country level relationship between positive well-being (0–100) and nature connectedness (1–7). From White et al. (2021).

From a pathways to nature connectedness perspective, it would suggest that the types of relationship unrelated to nature connection dominate. The pathways research was based on Kellert’s (1993) nine values of biophilia. Five of the nine types of human-nature relationship 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), a source of challenges to conquer (dominion), 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.

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).

I’m no expert on such things, but the UK was at the heart of the industrial revolution, and adept at exploiting natural resources. It’s also interesting to note that former parts of the British Empire also have low levels of nature connectedness (Canada, US, Australia, Ireland, HK). This suggests an attitude towards nature that we exported and that persists through to this day.

From a day-to-day perspective do we in the UK care for nature? Weedkillers are promoted (and purchased) as garden essentials. Our cultural products refer less and less to nature, but more and more to the individual. Do we increasingly care more about ourselves than the wider natural world?

Garden Essentials?

For a little more insight we’ve done some further analysis of the data presented in the paper. We looked at biodiversity, population density, urbanisation and tree cover for the 18 countries and how these factors related to nature connectedness and visits. We found a very strong correlation between biodiversity (National Biodiversity Index) and nature connectedness – and nature visits. The more wildlife there is in a country the greater the love of nature and likelihood people will go and visit it. Urbanisation and tree cover had no significant relationship and population density was weak once Hong Kong was removed from the analysis.

The UK has much lower levels of biodiversity and nature connectedness – and we know that the two are related. Our previous research has shown that people are good a spotting biodiversity and that higher levels of biodiversity are linked to greater wellbeing – and more visible biodiversity helps build nature connectedness. And increased nature connectedness through noticing nature leads to greater wellbeing.

Yet, when we do visit more biodiverse spaces do we truly respect nature? There were many reports of littering in lockdown and ‘dogs on leads’ signs are often ignored or pulled down at nature reserves despite the evidence that the presence of dogs harms wildlife. Would we litter or exercise a dog in a churchyard? It is time to recognise a deep lack of respect for nature, accept our failed relationship with nature and ask challenging questions.

What’s the way forward? Our relationship with nature needs to improve. Biodiversity needs to improve. And the plans to do so need greater integration. We know nature connectedness is built through noticing nature and increasing levels of biodiversity clearly provides more nature to notice, but people don’t notice nature.

There’s a battle for our attention. Companies spend millions competing for it. When brand X grabs attention from brand Y, there must be less noticing of nature. Nature has no marketing budget. No new styles – this year’s robin is the same as last years. Similarly, social media is designed to engage us. Waiting at the bus stop, technology wins the battle for attention and those who use their smartphone more have lower levels of nature connectedness. Perhaps a tax on advertising can be used to promote the restoration and noticing of nature? Yet, the countries with higher levels of nature connectedness have adverts, social media and smartphones too.

The fight for our attention

These are also modern phenomena; we can also ask if people in the UK have ever lived in harmony with nature? Did the relationship with nature start to fail during the industrial revolution? Or after the enlightenment – a period marked by an emphasis on the scientific method and reductionism. Yet again though, countries with a closer relationship with nature are not devoid of science and industry.

So what explains the UK’s lack of love for nature? There’s more work to do, but from a pathways perspective, dominion over nature and utilitarian use of nature are dominating the positive relationships based on noticing nature, beauty, emotion, meaning and caring for nature. This will lead to a lack of nature, further reinforcing the disconnect. To become a nation of nature lovers, there’s a need for greater biodiversity, bringing nature to where people live and a celebration of it each and every day.

 

 

White, M.P., Elliott, L.R., Grellier, J. et al. Associations between green/blue spaces and mental health across 18 countries. Sci Rep 11, 8903 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-87675-0

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Nature and Me – a new guide to strengthening the relationship between people and nature

The warming climate and loss of wildlife show that our relationship with nature has been failing. However, during the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people have turned to nature. This brings hope that people are ready for a new relationship with nature. During our work with the National Trust we’ve been thinking about, and actively building those new relationships with nature. A closer connection with nature that can boost the wellbeing of people and the wellbeing of the natural world we inhabit.

We want to share what we’ve learnt far and wide. So we’ve launched Nature and Me. A short guide with suggestions on how to get close to nature and the benefits this can bring. Nature and Me has two parts. Understanding the human-nature relationship and a guide to practically improving that relationship. It is based on research by the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group and experiences at National Trust places. Please download a copy here.

Part one introduces the concept of nature connectedness, the level of an individual’s relationship with nature. A summary of some of the research findings is then introduced. How life feels good when people have a strong connection with nature. How it’s possible to feel close to nature in towns and cities. How people who feel more connectedness are more likely to protect nature. How teenagers fall out of love with nature, and most adults do not notice nature. The guide then introduces the five pathways to nature connection, a practical framework to inform the design of experiences in nature.

Part two shows that framework at work, using examples form National Trust places to explain how to rethink the approach to nature engagement. How that shifted from what people understand about a place, to the way people experience a place. This new mindset yielded powerful results. From the way places were managed, their habitats and views, to approaches to wellbeing that were more meaningful and mindful. The approach informed learning and education too, with remarkable results. The pathways helped in the celebration and sharing of nature conservation work and outdoor activities for children and adults.

We hope the guide is only the beginning. There are so many ways we can apply the five pathways to nature connection. Read the guide and imagine the results if we applied this thinking more broadly, in our schools, workplaces and cities to create a new relationship with nature for human and nature’s wellbeing.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tune into Nature Music Prize 2021

To mark World Earth Day it’s great to announce the second running of the Tune Into Nature Music Prize. The launch in 2020 saw 180 entries and resulted in the inaugural winner, I Eden by LYDIAH. The Oak Project is supporting the the prize this year and with a judging panel including musicians Martyn Ware, Sam Lee, Supriya Nagarajan and poet Zena Edwards we are in search for a piece of original music that tunes into nature – helping to highlight the need for a new relationship with nature and provide vital support for young creative practitioners.

LYIDAH: winner of the 2020 Tune Into Nature Music Prize, photo Paula Baines

The Tune Into Nature Music Prize is a strand of artistic programming by the Oak Project, a newly established partnership between Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), the University of Derby and the Bronze Oak Project Ltd, a not-for-profit that promotes contact with the arts to create nature connection. The Oak Project is an initiative that aims to inspire and motivate public action for nature and climate through arts, culture and creativity.

The winning entry will receive a £500 grant to support their work and also benefit from a free professional remix produced by award-winning songwriter and producer Martyn Ware, Principal of Tileyard Education. They will also be invited to perform at Timber, the International Forest Festival, in 2022 – last year’s winner LYDIAH will perform at the 2021 festival. In addition, two further selected entrants will each benefit from a £250 grant.

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has found that the connection between young people and nature dips during teenage years and takes more than a decade to recover. Research also shows that references to nature in contemporary music have decreased consistently since the 1950s. This matters as a close connection with nature helps both the wellbeing of people and our planet, as people who are tuned into nature are more likely to care for it.

As highlighted in the recent pandemic, the human relationship with the rest of nature is essential for our wellbeing, yet the climate and environment emergencies show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. Nature means less and less in our lives and is disappearing as a reference in our music. We need, now more than ever, a new and more connected relationship with nature and music is a great way to celebrate nature and it’s essential role in our lives.

The competition is open to anyone aged 16-29 and resident in the UK. The track should not be longer than six minutes, contain lyrics and, this year, spoken word entries are welcome to be submitted to the prize. Applications close on 30 July 2021.

The idea is simple: To tune in and celebrate nature.

For inspiration – research shows that a closer, healthier and more sustainable relationship with nature comes through tuning into nature, noticing it, finding beauty, joy, calm, meaning and compassion. Further details and how to enter can be found at www.ysp.org.uk/tune-into-nature-music-prize

For some further inspiration, here’s some of my favourite classics and more recent tracks (and as a playlist) that are tuned into nature through the pathways to nature connectedness: senses, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion:

I’m looking forward to listening to the entries later in the summer.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship

A great deal of valuable research has shown that being out in nature is beneficial for human wellbeing. Much of this work uses time and visits to nature as a key measure – they are both straightforward to record. However, this research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness – put simply a love of nature. Also, few studies have considered the various ways people engage with nature in concert to establish which types of activity relate best to well-being.

We have been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected and engaging with nature in simple ways relates to pro-nature behaviours and wellbeing. Our paper on pro-nature behaviours was published last year in People and Nature. The second paper on wellbeing has now been published open access in the International Journal of Wellbeing. This blog provides a summary of quite a long and involved research paper.

In sum, we found that a close relationship with nature and simple moments with nature really matter for wellbeing – so much so that the impact of spending time in nature was not significant. Building on our work on ‘noticing nature‘ you can see the impact of such findings in today’s launch of #BlossomWatch by the National Trust.

Noticing blossom matters for wellbeing

The Research

Let’s look at latest research paper in more detail. We looked at data from a nationally representative YouGov survey of 2096 adults to explore how the factors below related to hedonic wellbeing (i.e., happiness), eudaimonic wellbeing (i.e., worthwhile life), illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety), and general physical health:

  1. nature connectedness,
  2. time in nature (days a week spending more than an hour in nature),
  3. engagement with nature through simple everyday activities,
  4. indirect engagement with nature (e.g. nature TV and books),
  5. knowledge and study of nature.

Our primary focus was on examining, when considered simultaneously, the relative importance of these five nature-engagement approaches.

Full details of the complex statistical analysis are provided in the paper, but a consistent pattern of results emerged across multiple analytical approaches (i.e., correlations, linear regression, dominance analyses, commonality analysis). We found that time in nature was not the main (or significant) predictor of wellbeing – nor were indirect contact with nature or knowledge/study of nature.  Rather, nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities (e.g. smelling wildflowers) consistently emerged as being the significant and prominent factors in explaining mental health and wellbeing.

Even when we considered two basic components of a good life, the basic psychological needs of autonomy (i.e., a sense of control over one’s life) and relatedness (via relationship status), nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities still emerged as being significantly related to happiness, feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower rates of illbeing.

Although there are many complex factors involved in wellbeing, these results support suggestions that nature connectedness itself—tuning into nature—is a core psychological need and basic component of wellbeing.

The finding that spending time in nature is a lesser-factor may seem odd.  After all, solid research has demonstrated that time in nature is important for wellbeing. However,  as noted above, this research has generally not included individual factors of nature connection and engagement.  Findings from the current study suggest that when added to the equation, these person-based factors have stronger relationships with wellbeing than does time in nature. Previous research using time alone is likely to be measuring a close connection with nature and various forms of nature engagement – but not as well as using specific measures of connection and engagement.

Or put another way, imagine if dietary research had focussed on time spent eating and visits to the fridge. Dietary advice would focus on those. Of some use, but it’s what you do in nature, or what you eat, that really matters. Measuring fat content, calories and exercise means time eating would drop from significance. Recommendations are based on what is measured.

There are many different ways to spend time in nature and different types of engagement with nature. Not all are related to wellbeing.

Being connected and engaging with nature generally involves spending time in nature, yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with nature.  Time does not tell the full story.  What matters is how that time is spent—developing and being in a close relationship with nature.

Does amount of time spent together provide an accurate indication of the closeness of a relationship?

The ‘dominance analysis’ showed that nature connectedness completely dominated all the other nature-related factors in predicting a worthwhile life and lower levels of illbeing, and engaging in simple nature activities was ranked as second.  For happiness, engaging with nature through simple activities completely dominated all other nature-related factors, with nature connectedness being ranked second.  It is important to note that “complete dominance does not typically occur in real data” (Kraha et al., 2012, p. 4).  This speaks to the powerful impact that nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities has on our mental health and wellbeing.

This prominence of nature connectedness and engaging in simple nature activities in accounting for the variance in mental health and wellbeing was also evident in the results of the commonality analyses.  Nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities each uniquely accounted for far more of the explained variance in happiness (17%, 20%), a worthwhile life (25, 15%), and lower wellbeing (31%, 15%), than did time in nature.  Indeed, time in nature uniquely accounted for only 1% of the explained variance in each of happiness, a worthwhile life, and lower illbeing.

Time in nature is a better indicator of levels of physical activity – it often involves walking, cycling etc. So, when looking at general physical health, it was time in nature and nature connectedness that emerged as significant predictors of general physical health. These findings remained significant even when considering control over one’s life and relationship status.  The dominance analysis revealed a tie for first ranking between nature connectedness and time in nature. Previously we’ve found that visits to nature, rather than nature connectedness, was linked to health.

It should be noted that relaxing in the garden and smelling wildflowers were the key significant items in the simple activities group – although correlated to wellbeing outcomes, items such as listening to birdsong or watching wildlife did not emerge as significant individual items in the regression. While smelling wildflowers is a simple engagement activity, relaxing in the garden could include non-nature engagement activities. Hence results could also reflect the benefits of having a garden rather than simple engagement with nature.

That said, the consistent pattern that emerged across correlational, linear regression, dominance, and commonality analyses with respect to nature-related factors and individual wellbeing provides strong support for the notion that time is not the main factor in the nature-wellbeing link.  Rather, the key factor is a close connection with nature. Further, these results mirror, and go further, than the findings in our study on another national daaset published last year. The importance of connection and noticing nature was also confirmed in our recent analysis of a third national dataset. From three national datasets, a clear picture is emerging: that nature connectedness and noticing nature are key for wellbeing. Time and visits have role, but should not be the focus.

By not being tuned into the nature around us, our lives are poorer in terms of happiness and meaning.  Yet, as these findings suggest, tuning into nature—through simple acts like smelling wildflowers while relaxing in a garden—help to explain differential levels of happiness and meaning in individual’s daily lives.  Tuning in to nature is not about time, not about minutes.  It’s about moments. Feeling connected to nature and engaging in simple activities in nature explains mental wellbeing better than time spent in nature.

The Implications

The results also have important practical implications for nature-based programmes and governmental policies.  Perhaps foremost at a programme and policy level, would be a shift from focusing on getting people to visit and spend time in natural (often more remote) spaces to focusing on how people can tune in and connect with everyday nature through everyday simple activities. This would also help to enhance nature connectedness and thereby wellbeing – of people and nature. Additionally, the results suggest the importance of provision of garden’s for rest and relaxation.

The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at a wider scale to inform cultural programmes and urban designs to foster and prompt engagement with everyday nature. City planners could invest beyond islands of urban parks to ensuring that nature is brought to all residents, for example, by ensuring that city streets and neighbourhoods have trees and flowers alongside (or at least visible from) walkways and routes to public transport and shopping areas. Long-term planning for urban “greenways” connecting parks, public, transit, schools, and basic-necessity shops would improve the lives of all residents – if they were prompted and understood the value of noticing nature. As we know from previous research, most people do not notice nature.

#BlossomWatch is a great example of a campaign to notice and celebrate nature and it’s meaning in our lives. The National Trust is inviting people wherever they live to emulate Japan’s Hanami– the ancient tradition of viewing and celebrating blossom – the Trust is now making it an annual tradition, asking people to share the joy and hope that the sight of blush-tinted blooms will bring to help lift spirits and enable everyone to celebrate nature together. 

The findings also have relevance to mental health practitioners.  That nature connectedness predicted greater happiness, greater levels of feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower prevalence of illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety) beyond feeling one has control over their life and relationship status, indicates that nature connectedness measures may be a valuable tool when assessing clients’ wellbeing.  Simple, pathways-informed, nature activities could be prescribed to clients – indeed we’ve found that noticing the good things in nature brings clinically significant improvements in mental health.

Finally, national policies aimed at raising levels of nature connectedness, and tracking this growth, are required as an expansion to current policies which, in general, are often geared towards measuring time in or visits to nature. We join Lambert and colleagues (2020) in their call for nature connectedness to be included as a standard metric of wellbeing; we also expand this call to national and civic governmental bodies.

The results confirm an emerging and important finding: that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from spending time in nature. We need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need for greater public understanding that a close connection with nature is a key component of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life—a good life.

 

Richardson, M., Passmore, H. A., Lumber, R., Thomas, R., & Hunt, A. (2021). Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. International Journal of Wellbeing, 11 (1).
https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1267

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment