Nature: The Ultimate Network?

Today I attended a workshop at Defra about connecting people with the environment. The questions for the day were broadly who to target? The barriers and challenges? What works? How to scale up? A cultural change is required within a generation and towards the end of the day our table focussed on young adults; our research suggests they are more disconnected from nature than older generations. Further justification is that this group are likely to be influencing future generations; their children. This group is often termed Millennials.

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Nature: The Ultimate Network?

This is not my area of expertise, but a brief scan (standing on the train as I write this) suggests that Millennials have a strong sense of community, both local and global, supporting the restriction of offensive speech and need for safe places. This group were much more likely to vote remain in the EU referendum. Others question this sense of community and highlight higher levels of narcissism in this group – a trait our research has found is a barrier to nature connection.

Other work suggests they are detached from institutions (but not the EU then?) and prefer to network with friends. Studies have shown they are less willing to support environmental causes, yet they want to make the world better – a confusing picture!

The Millennials will be at the forefront as the human species moves towards bio-engineered generations – Homo Deus. They will make key decisions about the future of our species, and the future of many others.

So how do we engage younger adults in order to reconnect them with nature? Millennials are said to have a less meaningful philosophy of life. Using social media to create a sense of belonging, they are digitally networked. Does this create a route for engagement? Nature is the ultimate global network. Our research suggests that an awareness of being part of nature brings meaning. Nature (usually in the U.K.) provides a safe space, it is detached from institutions and brings pro-social behaviours. An engaging message for Millennials? Once again, others understand such groups and engaging them much better than me, but we do need to connect them with nature – the ultimate network.

 

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3 Good Things in Nature – A simple way to improve connection with nature

A strong connection with nature lies at the heart of a healthy life and a healthy planet – but how do we increase people’s nature connection? That is my research focus and such increases need to be sustained and achieved as part of our everyday lives. The good news is that our forthcoming paper shows how simply noting ‘3 good things in nature’ each day for a week leads to longer term increases in nature connection.

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The Good Things in Nature are Everywhere

There is a growing need to reconnect people with nature owing to the state of nature, links to pro-environmental behavior and the benefits to human health and well-being. Connecting people more fully with nature is emerging as an important construct and a societal issue related to several recent high profile campaigns (e.g. by the David Suzuki Foundation in Canada; The Wild Network; The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB). Given the acknowledged benefits and interest, simple interventions to increase people’s connectedness to nature in a sustained manner are needed.

Previous work has considered wilderness experiences and camps for improving nature connection, but that’s time consuming and difficult to embed in daily routines – and follow-ups looking for sustained increases often aren’t included. Also, urban landscapes are increasingly the typical location for our interactions with nature, although nature gets overlooked by many. Therefore, the underlying rationale for 3 Good Things in Nature stems from calls to value ‘nearby nature’.

The approach was suggested by my personal experience of reconnecting with nature through writing about nature during 250+ local walks in 2011 – published as Needwood and A Blackbird’s Year and analysed in Richardson and Hallam (2013). Although extended writing can have well-being benefits, is not a practical intervention for many, but brief positive psychology interventions (PPIs) are. They have been found to be effective in improving happiness and well-being and the PPI we adapted is writing three good things a day, usually for a week or two.

We also had to design the instructions for three good things in nature. For example, the nine dimensions of biophilia and themes from my extended writing (Richardson and Hallam, 2013) suggest that naturalistic and aesthetic dimensions are key to developing a connection with nature. The aesthetic dimension was seen as particularly important, it links well to one of the four elements of Attention Restoration Theory, and being tuned into the beauty of nature has been related to well-being benefits. Finally, although the three good things in nature task is not about systematic mindful practice, it has been informed by intentionally attending to whatever arises in the present moment – because mindfulness has been shown to strengthen connection with nature.

So, to gather the evidence required to support the idea, we asked 50 people (general population rather than nature lovers) to note three good things in nature each day for five days and a control group (42 people) noted three factual things (e.g. what they had to eat). Two months later, the 3 good things in nature group showed sustained and significant increases in nature connectedness compared to the control group. Increases in nature connection also helped explain improvements in psychological health – supporting our work that suggests nature connection mediates well-being.

We also analysed what people wrote about in a sister paper, 1000 good things in nature published in 2015 (although the intervention was the first research of its type when conducted in 2013/14, we struggled to find a journal that was interested in a simple tool to increase the emerging concept of connection with nature). The content analysis of the sentences revealed ten themes – the things people note as being the good things in nature. These themes helps us understand the routes to connection with nature and represent the functional aspect of the intervention. The key aspects were sensations, changes over time, active wildlife, beauty and the interaction of the weather with natural forms. These five themes accounted for over 70% of the sentences that people wrote as they went about their day-to-day activities in a predominately urban landscapes, helping us understand how to engage people with nature in an everyday context – focus on the senses, change, activity and nature’s beauty. Or simply ask people to note the good things in nature each day – that’s what we’ll be asking the people of Sheffield to do next year in our on-going IWUN research project.

 

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (accepted). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.

Richardson, M., Hallam, J., & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: Aspects of nearby nature associated with improved connection to nature. Environmental Values24(5), 603-619.

Richardson, M., & Hallam, J. (2013). Exploring the psychological rewards of a familiar semirural landscape: Connecting to local nature through a mindful approach. The Humanistic Psychologist41(1), 35-53.

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How Nature Regulates Emotions and the Heart for Wellbeing

There is plenty of evidence that nature is good for us, but how does being in nature impact on our emotions, body and wellbeing? Our latest paper, just published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents a model and supporting evidence to show that nature regulates emotions and the heart. This brings balance to our feelings and the nervous system that controls the function of our body, and organs such as the heart. Balance of emotions brings wellbeing, and regulation of heart rhythms helps heart health. This is the story of how nature helps keep us well.

To explain the benefits of nature we need to understand our emotions and their underlying physiology. A simple way to do this is to represent these systems with 3 circles – represented here by a falcon, ash tree and wild boar warning!

Full Model

A colleague at Derby, Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, has shown that that both our evolution, and research evidence, can be represented by three dimensions to our emotion regulation system. We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). So, in more detail:

  • Drive – positive feelings required to seek out resources, and nowadays achieve success at work or in leisure. It’s about a wanting (that can bring joy and pleasure) as we pursue things (as a falcon does).
  • Contentment has an affiliative focus bringing different positive feelings, for example safety, soothing, affection, kindness and a positive calm with the way things are (represented by the ash tree).
  • Anxiety – feelings and alerts generated by the threat and self-protection system. Located in the fast-acting amygdala this system can be both activating and inhibiting (represented by the wild boar warning).

Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed. Paul’s work used this ‘3 Circles’ model as a foundation for Compassion Focused Therapy, used to overcome mental health issues. Our paper shows that it can also explain how exposure to nature effects our body, our emotions and our well-being.

We re-analysed previous research (mostly Japanese Shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing studies) that had compared how the body reacts to being immersed in nature (woodland), to being in an urban environment. These studies measured heart-rate variability – an indicator of activity in the branches of the nervous system that controls the heart. Although these studies found differences in the responses to both environments they didn’t consider them in the context of emotional regulation – how nature links to emotion, physiology and well-being. Nor did they have compelling explanations for some variety in the results.

The results of the analysis supported the story told by the 3 Circles model. Finding that being in the woods was calming – soothing the parasympathetic nervous system. Whereas the urban environment stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat. We can see how exposure to nature can bring balance, calming us after a busy day in the city, for example.

Finding Balance Through Nature

Finding Balance Through Nature

As ever the story is a little more complex. Some people weren’t soothed by the woodland, others were stimulated by it. Again, the 3 circles can help explain this. Some people could experience threat in the woodland, feeling anxious about what lies in the undergrowth – is that a boar rustling? Those more in tune with nature could feel joy (rather than calm) at being asked to spend time in the woods – at any time an exciting falcon may fly past!

It’s also worth considering our work on connecting people with everyday nature. Forest-bathing is not a daily option for most, but the soft-fascination of nature is there in towns, it just needs us to pause for a moment and make a little effort to notice it – to connect, rest and feel calm.

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. And these emotions have a physiological basis – which nature and well-being research often overlooks. 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.

In sum, research evidence supports the use of the three circle model to explain how the body reacts to exposure to nature. The model is also easily understood in the context of our everyday lives, providing an accessible physiological based narrative to help explain the benefits of nature – the neurophysiological and evolutionary basis provides a compelling argument to convince others of the role of, and need for, nature in our everyday lives.

 

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.

 

 

Richardson, M., McEwan, K., Maratos, F. and Sheffield, D. (2016). Joy and Calm: How an Evolutionary Functional Model of Affect Regulation Informs Positive Emotions in Nature. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0065-5

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Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature

Nature Connection has kept me really busy over recent months, the growing interest is great, but I’m understanding the restorative effects of nature more and more! So far in 2016 i’ve written, and had accepted, five research papers and the Nature Connections 2016 conference took place last month – see the story here. Next up is one project that’s going to keep me (and several others) busy for the next 3 years. IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature has been awarded £1.3 million from the Natural Environment Research Council – part of the human health and wellbeing goal of the Valuing Nature programme. Although we know that spending time in with nature is good for people, the project will investigate the dose and which particular features of green space boost people’s health and personal enjoyment.

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The Nature of Smartphones Users

Technology is often cited as a reason for our disconnection from the natural world, but there’s not a great deal of research in this area. Recently smartphone technology has become common and a colleague (Dr Zaheer Hussain) and I have just completed a study looking at phone use and connection with nature.

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30 Days Wild: How Connection to Nature Brings Happiness and Health

Last year we evaluated the impact of 30 Days Wild for The Wildlife Trusts. The results were excellent and the resulting journal paper has just been published – so you can read the full 5000 words here. This blog is a short summary, but focussing on an exciting aspect of the results which is only a small part of the article.

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Evaluation of 30 Days Wild Published in PLOS: ONE

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Nature: A New Paradigm for Workplace Wellbeing

This blog introduces key points from our 6500+ word review paper. The paper summarises the benefits of nature for health, wellbeing and restoration and argues that there should be action to bring nature into the workplace to address major challenges such as work related stress and ill-health. At present, workplace health programmes don’t tend to consider nature as a solution despite the health benefits of nature being known for many years. This mirrors, and is perhaps driven by, the wider societal dissociation from nature. In addition to simple exposure to nature, there is also evidence that a connection to nature is good for well-being and has a positive impact on valuable workplace factors such as vitality, creativity, happiness, pro-social behaviour and pro-environmental behaviour. The paper also reviews and summarises those benefits. I tried to capture it all in the figure below.

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