The Green Care Code – Good for nature, good for you

As part of Great Big Green Week the University of Derby is launching a Green Care Code with Go Jauntly and the Mental Health Foundation. Simply, Stop – Look – Listen and Enjoy Nature! If you’d like to find out more and help spread the word of the Green Care Code take a look here.

Over recent years our research has shown again and again that simple actions in nature matter. Just taking a moment to notice nature helps build a closer relationship with it. And research shows that this close relationship provides a boost for mental health and pro-nature actions.

The Green Care Code

The Great Big Green Week celebrates action for nature and an essential first step to action is finding a friend in nature. Working with the National Trust, we ran a national YouGov survey to explore what best explained pro-nature conservation behaviours. Key factors were people’s connection with nature and actively tuning into nature, which we know increases nature connection. Engaging in simple nature activities, such as taking a moment to listen to bird song, were the largest contributors to pro-nature conservation behaviours. More widely, other researchers have found a robust and causal link between nature connection and pro-environmental actions, that is, those related to cutting carbon use, rather than creating homes for nature.

If the benefits to nature aren’t enough, the Green Care Code is good for our own mental wellbeing too. When we prompted people to ‘stop, look and listen’ in order to notice the good things in nature for a week, they experienced clinically significant improvements in mental health – and this was in an urban environment. People wrote about the breeze in the trees, beauty of flowers, active wildlife in the park, changing seasons and birds singing. This doesn’t need a special trip, it can be at the bus-stop or on a trip outside to your wheelie bin, nature finds a home in the most unlikely places. More recently we’ve repeated this work and found significant improvements in both wellbeing and pro-nature actions for those taking part. It’s clear – simple moments with nature matter for human and nature’s wellbeing.

Sadly, people don’t tend to notice nature. There are many demands for our attention and nature features less and less in our lives. In wider analysis with the National Trust we found around 80% of people report that they rarely or never watched wildlife, smelled wildflowers or drew/photographed nature. 62% of people rarely or never listened to bird song or took a moment to notice butterflies or bees. It comes as no surprise then that although 80% of people expressed concern about the state of nature, far fewer actively help its recovery – for example only 29% said they’d created a home for wildlife in the past year. We found that those people with a high level of nature connectedness did much more than those with a weaker relationship.

The 2020 lockdown revealed this hidden need for a Green Care Code. Through looking at Natural England People and Nature Survey data we found that people reported noticing nature more, and that explained higher levels of wellbeing and pro-nature actions. Sadly, although people found a friend in nature during the lockdown of Spring 2020, the levels of noticing nature have fallen since.

The climate and wildlife emergencies show that our relationship with nature is failing. Fixing that relationship requires transformational change throughout society. However, part of that change is more people celebrating the benefits of a close relationship with nature. That needs a reminder to pause, notice and enjoy nature – a Green Care Code. A code that reminds us to care for nature and care for ourselves, for a future with more wildlife and more celebration of it because there’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing.

So, remember your Green Care Code every day, wherever you are, and Stop – Look – Listen and Enjoy nature.

 

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An Audio Meditation to Improve Nature Connectedness and Mental Health

Sometimes, we can’t get out into nature and our research shows that people typically spend less than five minutes each day in green space. Developing indirect ways to build nature connectedness helps those with restricted access and can build connection so that people are more likely to seek out nature. As well as improving everyday wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours, we’re also interested in how nature connectedness can be used for therapeutic interventions. The results of our latest research, a student’s Masters project, show how a nature focussed audio meditation can bring large and sustained increases in nature connectedness and improve mental wellbeing. The paper has just been published in the journal Ecopsychology where the final version can be accessed. An earlier version is available here.

Through increasing nature connectedness, we hoped to reduce anxiety and paranoia. Paranoid thoughts, such as the fear that something bad will happen and that others are responsible, are very common and are closely connected with anxiety. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a psychological intervention for both paranoia-related conditions and anxiety. However, CBT has shown only minimal effects on paranoia. So, there has been growing interest in other approaches, including mindfulness.

However, mindfulness-based approaches can be prohibitive due to factors such as time (a typical MBI takes place over an 8-week course) and accessibility. To address this the use of brief online mindfulness-based interventions (B-MBIs) has been explored with some promising results. There is also promising evidence for the effectiveness of brief nature-imagery and nature connectedness interventions such as our ‘three good things in nature’ intervention which has been to shown to deliver clinically significant improvements in mental health through increasing nature connectedness – which is in itself a desirable outcome given the links to eudemonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.

An obvious next step was to explore whether a brief intervention combining both mindfulness and nature connectedness components is an effective approach to improving nature connectedness and reducing symptoms of anxiety and paranoia.  So, we set out to investigate the effects of an online brief mindful nature-connectedness intervention (B-MNCI) on nature connectedness, paranoia and anxiety symptoms in a non-clinical sample.

A randomised controlled trial design was used. Thirty-seven participants were randomly allocated to the intervention group and 35 to the waitlist control group. The average age of those taking part was 26 years, with an age range of 18-50 years. They were English speaking, based in Europe and a good balance of male and females. An online survey was used to collect participant information as well as responses to four psychometric instruments targeting anxiety, paranoia, mindfulness and nature connectedness. Psychometric tests were administered before, immediately after listening to the 10 minute audio meditation for five consecutive days, and again two weeks later.

The script of the B-MNCI focused on activating the five pathways to nature connectedness and in addition to the narration, a background audio recording of a natural soundscape helped the listener imagine themselves in a natural setting. Inspiring nature connectedness was evoked by first inviting participants to bring sensory awareness to nature’s beauty. The audio meditation then gently guided listeners to imagine what the landscape they were listening to might look and feel like. As they imagined sitting within this landscape, they were invited to focus on their sensations, noticing, entering into contact with, and actively engaging with nature. In the final minutes listeners were encouraged to be aware of what emotions the natural space they imagined had evoked, thus becoming emotionally more engaged and reflecting on what nature might mean for them.

You can try the meditation. Make sure to sit in a quiet place and settle into a comfortable position. Gently close your eyes as you listen:

The results showed that the online B-MNCI was effective in bringing about significant increases in nature connectedness and lower paranoia when compared to the control group. It should also be noted that these changes were maintained at the follow-up. However, the same findings were not observed for anxiety. There are very few interventions that have been shown to bring about sustained increases in nature connectedness and the improvement of 17% was also notable. The national fall in nature connectedness from a lockdown high in May 2020 to May 2021 was 16%. A new approach to bringing about sustained increases in nature connectedness is important. As is confirmation that such approaches can improve mental health outcomes. This small study opens up some exciting opportunities for improving the human-nature relationship and therapeutic approaches to mental health.

 

Muneghina, O., Van Gordon, W., Barrows, P., & Richardson, M. (2021). A Novel Mindful Nature Connectedness Intervention Improves Paranoia but Not Anxiety in a Nonclinical Population. Ecopsychology.

 

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The Butterfly Affect: Can noticing nature really boost wellbeing and help address climate chaos?

In chaos theory The Butterfly Effect is a term for a situation where small changes may have large effects, such as the path of a tornado being influenced by the distant flapping of butterfly wings weeks before. It arose when meteorologist Edward Lorenz observed how seemingly inconsequential changes to his weather model produced dramatic effects.

A focus of my research is that actively noticing nature increases levels of nature connectedness, which in-turn leads to improved mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. One of the items we’ve used in this research refers to noticing butterflies, 62% of adults infrequently or never take time to notice butterflies. We’ve found that moments noticing butterflies and other simple joys of nature such as listening to birdsong explain mental health and pro-nature behaviours. During 2020’s first lockdown increases in noticing nature also explained both higher levels of wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. When we’ve asked people to write down the good things in nature that they notice, it leads to greater pro-nature behaviours and mental wellbeing.

Simply noticing nature helps build nature connectedness, a closer relationship with nature that drives the pro-environmental behaviours required to help reduce climate chaos. The active sensory engagement of noticing nature is the first step to finding beauty, emotion and meaning in nature – and to caring for nature – the pathways to nature connectedness.

So, The Butterfly Affect, refers to the influence and impact of everyday nature on our emotions. When noticed, emotions can be affected by simple things like a passing butterfly or singing bird. If a passing butterfly affects us, such that we feel the effect on our emotions, it’s a small step toward nature connectedness, mental wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. Of course, affect can also mean the experience of feeling emotion, and research shows that moments with nature can help manage our feelings.

Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.

This dreamy world of enjoying birdsong and noticing butterflies can seem adrift from the complex lives lived by many people, but it is something we’ve tested in urban environments, even during winter months. Simply noticing nature can seem even further adrift from the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis that require transformational and urgent action on a global scale. This needs extensive political and cultural change. How can noticing a butterfly make a difference?

Speaking after the publication of the influential IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems, Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist of the work, noted that a core issue concerns humans and asked how can we become more in tune with nature? And how do we relate to nature? This core relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world is at the heart of the climate crisis and loss of wildlife. Largely, the human-nature relationship is failing.

Fixing that failing relationship and increasing levels of nature connectedness starts with noticing nature – on a large scale. That change can be facilitated by the political and cultural environment to form a new relationship with nature. The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at societal scale to create an environment where nature is a valued part of everyday living. Through the design of urban spaces, our institutions, and our approach to health and education.

The political, scientific, and cultural environment led to an exploitation of natural resources that diminished habitats and polluted the atmosphere. Many of these changes occurred imperceptibly over time with each shovel of coal, each switch of the light and each tree felled. Small individual actions are both a product and shaper of culture. If a culture can be created where a passing butterfly is noticed and enjoyed by the many, there will be a greater chance to limit climate chaos and the destruction of nature. Such nature rich living would feel good and worthwhile, with people being more supportive of the wider changes needed for a sustainable future. Butterflies can affect us in meaningful ways.

 

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Urban greenspace use: Insights from mobile phone GPS data

A major challenge to understanding how to harness urban greenspace as a tool for improving health and well-being is the lack of data available on how people actually use greenspace. Four years ago I wrote about the launch of a smartphone app to study how green and built spaces affect our wellbeing. Previous papers have revealed the benefits when people are prompted to engage with greenspace, the good things in urban nature and the impact of more biodiverse greenspaces. The app also tracked the user’s time and use of green spaces identified by 945 ‘geofences’ in Sheffield.  The GPS tracking data collected by the app has been analysed to illustrate how city residents use their urban greenspace. A research paper on how to handle such complex data and providing basic data on the trips has been published in Plos One.

To our knowledge, this is the first paper using GPS data to specifically investigate adults’ greenspace-visiting behaviour. So, the paper provides basic information that we’ve had little insight into before. Aspects such as: (1) how long users spend in greenspaces; (2) how far they travel within them; (3) how far from home they travel to visit them; (4) average speeds of users; and (5) types of greenspaces visited. This objective data is also compared to self-report MENE data.

The geofences of green spaces

The app recorded 29,669 trips from 656,000 GPS data points on 888 smartphones. The process of extracting trip-level data from the raw GPS data points was complex and comprised several stages. From dividing GPS points into trips, to interpolation to obtain polylines with vertices corresponding to regular time intervals. The final stages of post-processing involved cropping the starts and ends of journeys to greenspaces, and checking the validity of trips as representations of single, non-vehicular visits to greenspace. Full details are given in the paper.

Heat map of most visited places

Lots of details of the trips are included in the paper, but the key findings were that the median trip length was 190 meters with a median duration of 4 minutes 36 seconds. This reveals the reality of urban engagement with nature for many. On average the user of the app made just over one trip per day to a greenspace, with a weekly total duration of nearly an hour and total distance of around 2.5 km.

These trip statistics were influenced by demographic factors including age (older participants spent more time and covered more distance in greenspaces) and gender (women make more frequent trips to greenspace). Importantly, ethnicity and deprivation also play a role, with ethnic minorities and people from more deprived areas making shorter visits to greenspaces. It should be noted that the difference was 3 minutes to 4.5 minutes. There is a need for equality of access, however there’s a fundamental problem of very little time being spent in greenspaces. When the most common trip to urban greenspace is around 0.004% of a typical day, it changes the conversation around access to nature, it needs to be more equal and higher for all. Recent research shows that people in the UK visit nature less than other countries.

Finally on demographics, time spent outside as a child seemed to positively influence the frequency of trips made as an adult, suggesting that behaviours learnt as a child continue into adult life. Time spent outside in the past year was also significant, with people who have spent more time outside having a 25% faster walking speed!

Four minutes in urban nature

The GPS results were compared to results from the face-to-face MENE survey. For types of green spaces, the MENE category “park in a town or city” comprises 53% of visits to greenspaces within towns and cities. This was very similar to the 50% of trips from the app data. Parks, both local and large, were found to be particularly popular destinations for greenspace visits given that only 15% of the geofenced greenspaces that were parks. However, 3% of MENE trips were to “woodland or forest”, compared to 13% from the app, showing how self-report can underestimate some everyday exposure to nature.

Our results suggest that most day-to-day greenspace trips are brief and incidental, i.e. travelling through rather than to greenspace. This reveals an important reality of people’s everyday engagement with nature. The results also confirm the importance of including social and cultural factors when investigating who uses and who benefits from urban greenspace. Of course, regular readers of this blog, will know a key theme is engagement with nature, moving beyond visits and thinking about ‘moments not minutes’.

In a recent study people asked to “tap into their sense of wonder” on a 15 minute walk in nature found greater benefit than those that just walked in nature. Also, we’ve found that a person’s relationship with nature explains the benefits of greenspace over and above visits and time. However, there’s an interaction between the two, connection is built on moments  and time in greenspaces. So, while the data on trips matters, the engagement during the visit is key. As is the reality of everyday time in nature revealed in this latest research. There’s a need to consider how to turn brief incidental trips to and through urban greenspaces into everyday moments of wonder. Imaginative design and awareness of the role of nature in keeping well can do this – and those wonderful places would attract longer visits too.

 

Mears, M., Brindley, P., Barrows, P., Richardson, M., & Maheswaran, R. (2021). Mapping urban greenspace use from mobile phone GPS data. PloS one16(7), e0248622.

 

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The Dasgupta Review and Nature Connectedness

Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta led the review on the economics of biodiversity that was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 2019. The review set out to assess the economic benefits of biodiversity and the costs and risks of biodiversity loss before identifying actions that can enhance biodiversity and economic prosperity. The review was published early in 2021, but at 610 pages it’s taken me a while to compile my thoughts. This blog considers the aspects most relevant to human-nature connectedness – of which there are many.

The Dasgupta Review recognises the essence of nature connectedness and it runs as a theme through relevant chapters. The review acknowledges the adoption of anthropocentric viewpoint – the value that nature provides to human wellbeing. This is discussed with reference to sacredness and the different systems of belief and thought that go beyond an anthropocentric perspective (section 1.8). Sacredness is discussed further, how it can include a sense of awe and wonder that we know contributes to nature connectedness and human wellbeing.

The Dasgupta Review goes beyond the essence of nature connectedness, to discussing it directly. The review notes the ‘admirable’ 2015 review of the wellbeing benefits of nature connectedness by Capaldi and colleagues (we published a review more recently). The Dasgupta Review accepts the distinction between contact with nature and connectedness with nature. When discussing contact and connection, it’s interesting that the review notes that:

“Psychologists would appear to be on firmer ground when reporting the role contact with Nature plays in our sense of well-being. The influence on our well-being of connectedness with Nature is less assured empirically, at least as of now. The reason may be that connectedness is more difficult to achieve than making contact with the natural world. So, most studies have looked for the influence of contact on hedonic well-being.”

The ‘firmer ground’ of contact goes well beyond psychologists to policy where the focus is often physical access, rather than emotional or meaningful access to nature. As discussed later, for the much needed new relationship with nature, perhaps there’s a need for a new language of connection and access. The science of nature connectedness is more recent than the large body of research into contact with nature, but as I’ve noted previously, contact is easier to measure and to maximise benefits we must ensure research based on metrics that are more straightforward to measure do not dominate policy recommendations. The data to support the important role of nature connectedness in wellbeing is building though. In addition to the specific nature connectedness and wellbeing reviews above, three recent population surveys (1, 2 & 3) directly compare contact and connection with nature. This shows that for mental wellbeing outcomes, nature connection can matter more than time in nature, with empirical work showing the causal link.

It is also interesting that the review discusses comparisons of wellbeing (such as life satisfaction and eudemonic wellbeing), ‘affect balance’ (a topic that is often overlooked and I discuss here) and relationship to income. Similar there’s been nature connectedness research in these areas, from the benefits to both feeling good and functioning well, to how nature connectedness is a strong predictor of eudemonic wellbeing – four times greater than socio economic status.

When presenting options for change, the review again distinguishes between contact with nature and connectedness with nature – the need to take something away from nature contact and internalise it – from a pathways to nature connectedness perspective, to find meaning. The review also states that “contact with the natural world is a means to furthering personal well-being, connectedness with Nature is an aspect of well-being itself” – which mirrors our call earlier in 2021 for nature connectedness to be adopted as a metric for wellbeing. Here there is progress with nature connectedness being trialled in the Gallup World Poll, which is also discussed in the review.

In the section on transforming our institutions and systems, the review continues, “Access to green spaces (they are local public goods) can also reduce socio-economic inequalities in health. Interventions to increase people’s contact and connectedness with Nature would not only improve our health and well-being, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that those interventions would also motivate us to make informed choices and demand change” – thereby capturing the essential reciprocal relationship needed for a sustainable future and indirectly referencing the work on the causal link between nature connectedness and both pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours.

Glimmers of hope for such an approach are identified, in small initiatives for the renewal of urban nature – it is true that examples of programmes to increase both access and nature connectedness are relatively new and recent, but examples can be found, for example 30 Days Wild by The Wildlife Trusts and 50 Things by the National Trust are both informed by the pathways to nature connectedness. More on this work can be found in our recent booklet, Nature & Me. More widely, projects applying the pathways to nature connectedness include the RSPB Scotland nature prescription pilot, the Oak Project, Generation Green and WWT’s Generation Wild. Finally, the connecting people with nature theme of the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund engages applicants with the pathways to nature connectedness, so many more projects are on their way – but is easy to slip back into an anthropocentric approach where access green space is simply provided as a ‘dose of nature’.

Good progress, but the wish in the Dasgupta Review is grand, for a future where citizens can live in peace with nature. The University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group also has grand visions for a new relationship with nature and proposals for moving from small initiatives to those that increase nature connectedness through transforming institutions and systems – see our recent paper in Ecosystems and People.

Education is a further, and final, option for change that considers nature connectedness with reference to our emotional attachment to nature and appreciation of our place in nature. While the focus on introducing the awe and wonder of nature to children is present, there is reference to teaching knowledge when the research evidence suggests that this isn’t the best route to nature connectedness or ecological behaviour. There is a need to remember that the loss of biodiversity has been overseen by a generation that likely spent more time in nature and had greater knowledge of it. Rather than looking backwards, there is a need for a new relationship with nature where traditional assumptions are challenged and the latest research evidence applied.

Citing the ‘teenage dip’ in nature connectedness, the review states that ‘Connecting with Nature needs to be woven throughout our lives’ and there is need to create an environment in which, from an early age, we are able to connect with Nature’. It is notable that the final section on Transforming our Institutions and Systems is often a manifesto for connecting people with nature and the final paragraph includes the line, ‘Each of these senses is enriched when we recognise that we are embedded in Nature’.

Although the abridged version of the report retains aspects around nature connectedness, the key distinction between contact and connection and the need for connection with nature to be woven throughout our lives, the language of connectedness falls away in the Headline Messages document. There is mention of interventions to enable people to connect with nature for both human and nature’s wellbeing, but education policy is reduced down to environmental education programmes that unless careful designed are known to play a small part in ecological behaviours. Those engaging with the five pages of text in the headline messages will come away with a different feel than when engaging with the much longer abridged version and full report.

From a human-nature connectedness perspective the full Dasgupta Review is very encouraging document. It’s quite up to date and shares much of our thinking around the need for a new relationship with nature. It’s great that a review led by an economist captures this perspective so well.

It’s interesting to consider the Dasgupta Review alongside May’s WHO publication, ‘Nature, biodiversity and health: an overview of interconnections’. It includes a quote from the final paragraph of Dasgupta Review, but that perspective doesn’t run through the overview:

“Biodiversity does not only have instrumental value, it also has existence value – even an intrinsic worth. These senses are enriched when we recognise that we are embedded in Nature. To detach Nature from economics is to imply that we consider ourselves to be external to Her. The fault is not in economics; it lies in the way we have chosen to practise it.”

The WHO publication is much shorter, even than the abridged Dasgupta Review. Although the title includes interconnections between nature, biodiversity and health, the summary states that the report ‘provides an overview of the impacts of the natural environment on human health. It presents the ways nature and ecosystems can support and protect health and well-being’. It takes the anthropocentric viewpoint noted in the Dasgupta Review and focuses on the benefits of nature to humans, rather than the interconnections. In contrast to the Dasgupta Review, there is no distinction between contact and connection, with little language around the importance of close human-nature relationships (beyond the quote from the Dasgupta Review). There is mention of non-materials benefits such as spiritual meaning and aesthetic value within a linear figure on Cultural Services, but again the focus is what nature provides for people, rather than a sense of interconnected relationships between people and the rest of nature. The circular interaction between capitals is captured simply in the Dasgupta Review (figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 Interaction Between the Capitals from Dasgupta, P. (2021), The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. (London: HM Treasury)

When considering access to nature, unlike the Dasgupta Review quote on access above, in the WHO report there’s little on interconnectedness and the opportunity to build access and connection to move beyond the one-way benefits nature provides to human health, towards building a reciprocal human-nature relationship for a sustainable future. Access to nature should provide an opportunity for people to form a close relationship with nature and care for nature – an opportunity to unite human and nature’s wellbeing.

The section on access to nature is short, but to mind access for connection, or facilitating both physical and psychology access to nature is an essential and simple point when considering the interconnections between nature, biodiversity and health. The conclusions of the WHO report focus on the clear need to protect and restore nature, but there is mention of ‘sustainable behaviours that benefit nature and health’, ‘simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits’ and ‘promoting benefits for both human health and the natural environment’ – it’s a shame that’s not a stronger theme throughout.

Previously, I’ve written about the National Parks Landscape Review (Glover Review) and Michael Gove’s speech on a Green Brexit. The Landscape Review included a focus on learning, Michael Gove inferred a distinction between themes such as emotional attachment with nature and science – as policy is rooted in science. Yet there is a science of emotion and connection. The Dasgupta Review embraces the emotional and soulful relationships with nature and recognises the accompanying science. The challenge, as found in the brief Headline Messages document, is retaining and reflecting those essential elements in policy recommendations.

In sum, the WHO report on the interconnections between nature, biodiversity and health sets out the importance of nature for health and thereby the need to protect it. Although a review of the economics of biodiversity, the Dasgupta Review sets out and understands the relationship between people and the rest of nature and how that is key for human and nature’s wellbeing. However, there is still a need for wider acceptance of that message, or a need to find a language of nature connectedness compatible with policy proposals.

 

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