A Passion for Nature: from Obsession to Harmony

A couple of recent research papers have caught my eye. The first paper looks at outdoor activities, emotions and two types of passion for nature – important as one is associated with a greater connection with nature, the second relates to decreased connection. Clearly, as we look to improve nature connection, knowing the best forms of relationship is key. The second paper is about the rapid increase in nature connection research over recent years.

A common way to engage people with nature is through outdoor activities. Previous research has considered the quality of the experience and a recent paper by Junot and colleagues considers emotions through the broaden-and-build theory – more on that later. The authors propose that the reasons people take part in outdoor activities will impact on the emotions experienced. This is considered within a two-part model of passion.

Passion consists of a love for self-defining activities – the important things we devote time and energy too. Someone with a passion for an activity might define themselves by it, for example as a hiker, rather than someone who hikes. This internalisation process can be divided into harmonious passion where the person has control over the activity and feels good while doing it. Or obsessive passion where individuals feel compelled to engage in an activity, it becomes disproportionality part of their identity and important for their self-esteem. Harmonious passion is associated with positive affect, intrinsic joy, and to flow — the mental state of being fully immersed and completely present – a state conducive to creativity. Obsessive passion is associated with negative affect, sometimes because people are doing the activity when they should be doing something more important, bringing conflict. This idea reminds me of Gregory Bateson’s writing on our conscious purpose which is damaging to the wider ecology as it separates us from it – I wrote about that here – or you can read Bateson’s 1968 lecture on the topic here.

So, emotions arise from these passions and the broaden-and-build theory provides an insight how they can be translated into behaviours, such as pro-environmental behaviours. Positive emotions open outlook and bring less self-centred attitudes which ultimately lead to a greater feeling of interconnectedness with nature. Negative emotions narrow thoughts and actions towards avoiding negative outcomes and self-orientated behaviours, limiting the overlap between self and nature.

In the study people completed measures for passion for outdoor activity, emotions, environmental behaviours and nature connection (with their own measure rather than an existing one). As expected:

  • Harmonious passion was related to positive emotions
  • Obsessive passion was related to negative emotions
  • Positive emotions were related to environmental behaviours – mediated by nature connection

The research shows that passion, or our relationship with an activity, is important part of our relationship with nature. It is suggested that non-competitive activities that stimulate positive emotions are offered. For children, activities should be recreational, allowing the natural world to be discovered at their own pace to encourage the development of harmonious passion.

Discovering a passion for nature.

The paper on the rapid increase in research by Ives and many colleagues, reviewed 475 papers on human-nature connection. In an analysis ending in 2015, 73% were published between 2010 and 2015. Most of the papers (76%) looked at individual relationships, but the form of those relationships varied between cognitive (36%), experiential (22%), emotional (22%), philosophical (14%) and material (7%). The top 5 countries represented were USA (32%), Australia (11%), Canada (9%), UK (6%) and The Netherlands (5%). The most represented disciplines were psychology (29%), social sciences (21%), environmental sciences (15%), tourism (10%), education (10%), planning (7%) and health (6%).

Cluster analysis revealed three groupings of research:

  • HNC as mind, dominated by the use of psychometric scales,  but tended to consider the relationship with nature, rather than specific places.
  • HNC as experience, characterised by observation and qualitative analysis. Describes  people’s experiences of local areas. An example being the study of people’s interactions with nature as part of a citizen science programme.
  • HNC as place, emphasises place attachment and reserve visits. Typically uses quantitative questionnaires to study emotional connections to specific green spaces or landscapes.

Conclusions were that the importance of human-nature connections is increasingly recognised. However, in order to make a positive change to sustainability there is a need to work across these groups, gather insights and pursue new research to build a strong connection between humanity and the biosphere. Those with a passion for nature need to work in harmony to understand and rewild minds in order to bridge the gap between people and nature.


Junot, A., Paquet, Y., & Martin-Krumm, C. (2017). Passion for outdoor activities and environmental behaviors: A look at emotions related to passionate activitiesJournal of Environmental Psychology.

Ives, C. D., Giusti, M., Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Klaniecki, K., Dorninger, C., … & Raymond, C. M. (2017). Human–nature connection: a multidisciplinary reviewCurrent Opinion in Environmental Sustainability26, 106-113.

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Looking back on Nature Connections 2017 – Beyond contact with nature to connection

The Nature Connections 2018 conference at the University of Derby last month was the third in a series which grows as the relevance of the natural environment to everyday lives becomes increasingly accepted owing to the links to our environmental attitudes, behaviours and wellbeing. We started by reminding ourselves of the fundamentals, that nature connection is an established and measurable psychological construct and that it can be improved through affective and sensory activities (rather than cognitive and knowledge based activities). Of course, there is a need to get research evidence across, so after a burst of knowledge based talks, Mark Cocker ably returned us to the affective and sensory delights of the natural world.

During the opening session, gaps in the research were also identified, the journey of connection to nature across the lifespan is not well understood. Snapshots tell us that nature connection is lower among teenagers and young adults, but there is a need for longitudinal work to gather evidence on nature connection across the lifespan – does a connected child mean a connected adult? What are the optimum times for interventions? How important is childhood nature connection? All questions to be answered.

However, they’ll always be unknowns and at present there is a huge opportunity for us all to respond to the current evidence on nature connection and work together in order to make a difference. This was captured by James Cross, Chief Executive, Natural England:

James Cross, Chief Executive, Natural England

“My own experiences have shaped my passion for helping others equally access, enjoy and connect with the natural environment so it is a pleasure to be a part of the third Nature Connections conference. I am excited to discuss how Natural England can work with partners, both old and new, to transform how the natural environment can support people in their daily lives, wherever they are, whatever their background; to enable more people to visit the natural environment, more often, and to ensure these visits build people’s sense of connection with the outside world on their doorstep.”

During the day there were many talks and conversations. For example, the barriers to nature were discussed, with the importance of co-designed interventions highlighted. These can be collaborations between experts and users, and across sectors, conservation and well-being for example – a health service for people and nature’s well-being perhaps? The pathways to nature connection provide a framework for such co-production activities and allows endless variety of approaches, from fashion design to bush-craft, there are pathways for everyone.

This is important as personal perspectives and choice were highlighted as key to starting to get connected. We’ve become so culturally detached from nature that some people need ‘emotionally safe’ access to nature as it has become far removed from their regular lives. As emotional awareness is at the heart of nature connection, such barriers will hopefully be more easily understood. Emotion should not be shied away from. Emotions are real. They have a physiological basis and provide impetus for action and motivation, impacting the body in a manner that cognition alone cannot.

It’s important to evaluate the impact of such activities, not just on nature connection as an outcome – the outcomes can be multiple and overlapping. Indeed, nature connection might not be the outcome, it may act as a mediator or moderator – there’s emerging evidence that nature connection lies at the heart of more unexpected benefits from body-image to physical activity – considered your outcome data carefully, you may have an unexpected story to tell about the benefits of nature!



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Does a Green Mind include Emotion?

There’s a river close to home I visited most weeks for five years. It’s the place I found my own reconnection to nature. After 9 months doing other things I returned recently. Hearing the voice of the shallows and feeling the freedom of the flatlands beyond was surprisingly powerful. It was a renewed contact with nature – full of meaning, beauty, compassion for the fallen ash and notable emotion. The river was calming. The sand martins brought joy. It reaffirmed to me that our connection with nature, and many of the benefits of nature are affective – and that there are two types of positive affect that help us function well. Then, when a sheep burst unexpectedly through the herbage of summer, I experienced a third type of emotion!

A place of joy, calm and connection

The trip made me think about a paper published recently that proposes a ‘Green Mind Theory’ (GMT) on the link between the brain, body and wider environment (Pretty et al, 2017). It’s based on a two-part model of brain function and the links to the nervous system. It has an evolutionary basis much like our paper in Evolutionary Psychological Science published last year (Richardson et al, 2016) which shows how the ‘3 Circles’ model (Gilbert 2009) explains changes in nervous system balance seen when in nature. The 3 Circles model considers similar research into the balance of the nervous system, but also includes research into positive and affiliative emotions – after all many of the well-being benefits of nature are related to positive affect . The GMT paper sets out to consider the two-part model within a wider context of living (which is done very well) and habituation. In this blog I take a look at the two models and discuss some differences.

Like the ‘3 Circles’ model, the brain metaphor that underpins GMT is based on different stages of brain evolution. The brain stem, or bottom-brain, contains primitive fast responding and automatic functions to enable survival when a threat lurks in the bushes. GMT explains that the top-brain is the most recent in evolutionary terms, a slower functioning area that brings learning, decisions and social aspects of living. The top-brain drives the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) associated with rest and digest (labelled contentment within the 3 Circles model). The bottom-brain drives the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) associated with fight and flight (covered by drive and threat within the 3 circles model). The mid-brain associated with emotion, memory and bonding isn’t included in the GMT model. Similarly to 3 Circles, the ‘green mind’ suggests an optimal mix of mainly activated PNS, mild SNS from interest and excitement, with occasional threat based spikes. GMT suggests that the immersion-attentiveness brought about by certain activities calms the mind through activating the PNS. Based on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), GMT highlights the importance of resorting attention capacity, with activation of the PNS the key mechanism.

Beyond Restoration to Affect

ART centers on directed attention, which requires distracters to be ignored. Directed attention, which can be aligned to drive and threat within the 3 Circles model outlined below, is common as modern life requires cognitive effort. ART proposes that natural environments (but it can be non-natural stimuli) are restorative for depleted attention resources as the soft-fascination of nature provides involuntary attention which facilities calm, rest and contemplation – seems sensible as our senses evolved to make sense of the natural world after all. This brings balance in GMT to the top and bottom brain.

So, ART is based on restoration, and provides a good understanding of the restorative benefits of nature. However it tends to focus on short-term benefits rather than eudaemonic wellbeing (functioning well) and is based on the proposition that nature primarily provides restorative benefits. Our understanding of how wider psychological wellbeing is promoted and sustained by nature is much less developed than short-term restoration, yet there is a desire to deliver health systems that support psychological wellbeing in flourishing communities (Cleary et al, 2017). However, nature connectedness, which includes our an affective relationship and feelings towards nature, is associated with  eudaemonic wellbeing indicators and provides a potential pathway to them. Like nature connectedness, affect is core to the 3 Circles model of affect regulation, and supports an account that nature provides benefits when resources are not depleted.  The 3 Circle model encourages a perspective of wellness through the balance of positive, affiliative and threat based emotions, which also impact on the nervous system and SNS/PNS balance.

Emotions in Nature

Clearly we’re touching on emotion (or positive affect) already – and coincidentally, Michael Gove recently said that “My commitment to the environment springs from the heart and from emotions“. Emotions matter so let’s consider this further. Emotions have a biological basis and the affect-regulation system controls our heart-rate, muscles and the way our brain functions – put simply, when considering regulation and habituation, emotions should be considered (Kappas, 2011). Positive affect, which is boosted by immersion in and connectedness to nature, is relaxing; chemicals flood through the brain, broadening our processing and horizons. With negative affect we focus on an issue, and our muscles tense, ready to respond: very useful to our ancestors when they were threatened by a nasty snake, but frustrating to us when we ruminate on a deadline at work or someone’s unkindness. So, emotions also provide the impetus for action and motivation, impacting the body in a manner that cognition alone cannot (Gilbert, 2014). Finally, for wellbeing emotions need to be balanced (Kappas, 2011).

Many of the wellbeing benefits of nature relate to positive affect and emotion. And Ulrich (1983) noted two types of positive affect – wakeful relaxation and positive emotional reactions to nature. However, the majority of studies into the benefits of nature, and a connection to nature, have focused on, and found increases in, a single dimension of positive affect (McMahan & Estes, 2015). Howell & Passmore (2013) note, as I’m sure you have all experienced, that nature can elicit feelings of ecstasy and wonder, and foster feelings of comfort. Research in neurophysiology has also found two types of positive affect which link through to physiological changes (Fredrickson, 2001). The 3 Circles model also includes two types of positive affect – drive or contentment (Gilbert et al., 2009b; Gilbert, 2014).

The 3 Circles Model of Emotion

I feel we’ve established that time in nature impacts our emotions. Let’s move onto a closer look at the 3 Circles Model of emotion developed by Prof. Paul Gilbert OBE (e.g. Gilbert, 2009). The model outlines three dimensions of our affect regulation system. This is based on:

  • the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (Porges 1995).
  • research into the threat system by LeDoux (1998) and Panksepp (1998).
  • research into the review of affiliative and positive emotions by Depue and Morrone-Strupinsky (2005).

Based on our evolution, and the research evidence, three dimensions to our emotion regulation system can be set out (natural symbols added by me to aid explanation!). We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). So, in more detail:

  1. Drive (SNS activating) – 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).
  2. Contentment (PNS activating) – 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).
  3. Anxiety (SNS activating) – 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).

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 to achieve at work (or school) 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 (CFT), used within the NHS to overcome mental health issues. Our research shows that it can also explain how exposure to nature affects our body, our emotions and our well-being.

We can see that, drive and contentment can be mapped onto the positive and relaxing reactions to nature noted by Ulrich (1983). The balance between drive and contentment also fits the long-standing account of two phases of positive states, appetitive activity ‘doing’ and consummatory response ‘being’ (Tinbergen, 1951). Once a goal is achieved (e.g. a resource obtained), drive systems need to be ‘switched off’ to balance energy expenditure and provide positive affect in the form of contentment. This system is linked to the PNS. In this respect the contentment system is seen as affect-regulating (Depue & Morrone-Strupinksy, 2005) and is distinct from the drive system and feelings of excitement (Gilbert et al., 2008).

It has been recently argued that connection to nature has modern clinical relevancy and nature should be part of established mental health care. The 3 circles model already provides a proven basis for mental health care through CFT. This shows its utility for improving the understanding of mental wellbeing and delivering successful mental health care interventions. Our research has shown that the 3 Circles model of affect-regulation can be applied to explain the benefits derived from nature.

To shows this, we re-analysed a dozen or so previous studies (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. The results of the analysis supported the story told by the 3 Circles model. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban environment stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.

However, 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? There’s also research to show that happiness and joy can be brought about through nature (and connection with nature is about an emotional relationship). So, those more in tune with nature could feel joy at being asked to spend time in the woods – at any time an exciting falcon may fly past! This would bring increased SNS, rather than PNS activated calm.

Let’s return to the river. I arrived feeling well. I left feeling joyful. Nature is not just about restoration from fatigue. It is about psychological wellbeing, happiness and personal growth from developing a connection to nature. Nature Connection is about emotion and every person should have an affective relationship with nature. To achieve that, and the wider benefits beyond restoration, we need to include the role of emotions when discussing the relationship of people and nature.


Cleary, A., Fielding, K. S., Bell, S. L., Murray, Z., & Roiko, A. (2017). Exploring potential mechanisms involved in the relationship between eudaimonic wellbeing and nature connection. Landscape and Urban Planning158, 119-128.

Depue, R. A., & Morrone-Strupinsky, J. V. (2005). A neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 313–395.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist56(3), 218.

Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind: A new approach to the challenges of life. London, UK: Constable & Robinson.

Gilbert, P. (2009b). Introducing compassion-focused therapy. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 15(3), 199-208.

Gilbert, P. (2014). The origins and nature of compassion focused therapy. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53(1), 6-41.

Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Mitra, R., Franks, L., Richter, A., & Rockliff, H. (2008). Feeling safe and content: A specific affect regulation system? Relationship to depression, anxiety, stress, and self-criticism. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(3), 182-191.

Howell, A. J., & Passmore, H. A. (2013). The nature of happiness: Nature affiliation and mental well-being. In Mental well-being (pp. 231-257). Springer Netherlands.

Kappas, A. (2011). Emotion and regulation are one! Emotion Review3(1), 17-25

LeDoux, J. (1998). The emotional brain. London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2015). The effect of contact with natural environments on positive and negative affect: A meta-analysis. The Journal of Positive Psychology10(6), 507-519.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Porges, S.W. (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage: A Polyvagal Theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301–318.

Pretty, J., Rogerson, M., & Barton, J. (2017). Green Mind Theory: How Brain-Body-Behaviour Links into Natural and Social Environments for Healthy Habits. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health14(7), 706.

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

Tinbergen, N. (1951). The study of instinct.

Ulrich, R. S. (1983). Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment. In Behavior and the natural environment (pp. 85-125). Springer US.



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Michael Gove and the Science of Beauty and Emotion

In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature – see my blog and the open access paper for more detail. It is great to hear the Secretary of State speaking from the heart. However, the speech, see excerpt below, infers a distinction between such themes and science. Having evidence based policy makes sense. This blog points out that there is science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion and this should also form part of the evidence base that informs environmental policy.

“I grew up with an emotional attachment to natural beauty which inevitably influences my feelings towards questions on everything from architecture to ivory. But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science.”

In a second excerpt Michael Gove, talks of compassion, our connection with nature and its place in our wider well-being:

“I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to this earth that we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.”

So let’s take a look at the science of beauty, emotion, meaning, compassion and our connection with nature (which has it’s own science as a psychological construct).


Michael Gove clearly appreciates nature’s beauty. A couple of research papers by Zhang have considered the role of nature’s beauty in nature connectedness and the associated benefits of well-being and pro-social behaviour. The first looked at how a connection to nature is related to well-being. In two studies the authors found that the positive relationship between a connection with nature and satisfaction with life was only significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty. The second research article focused on another benefit of nature – pro-social, or helping behaviours such as empathy and generosity. Once again these positives were found to be linked to nature’s beauty. 

Nature's Beauty

Nature’s Beauty


Michael Gove speaks of an emotional attachment to nature and the evolutionary basis of our connection. Our recent paper, published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents a model that helps explain our emotional relationship with nature, and how nature regulates emotions and the heart. We know that emotions have a biological basis and the affect-regulation system controls our heart-rate, muscles and the way our brain functions. We also know that many of the wellbeing benefits of nature relate to positive emotions. 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. This 3 Circles model includes two types of positive emotions – drive or contentment. We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree).

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.  Paul’s work used this ‘3 Circles’ model as a foundation for Compassion Focused Therapy, used to overcome mental health issues. Our research shows that it can also explain how exposure to nature effects our body, our emotions and our well-being.


Michael Gove speaks of the soul. Spirituality relates to our inner experience and beliefs that give meaning to existence and go beyond the current context. Howell, Passmore and Buro, found that meaning in life is part of the story of the link between nature connection and well-being. Similarly, Kamitsis & Francis looked at the role of spirituality in the link between connection to nature and well-being, they found that being engaged with, and having a sense of connection to nature was linked to both greater spirituality and mental well-being. The two studies together suggest that finding meaning to our existence in a shared natural world is both part of nature connection and a likely part of the positive impact on well-being.

Beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion

Our latest research has revealed there is a need to go beyond activities that simply engage people with nature through knowledge and identification, to pathways that develop a more meaningful and emotional relationship with nature. The research started with two surveys (total n = 321) of engagement with, and valuing of, nature activities structured around the nine values of the Biophila Hypothesis. The two sets of analyses confirmed that contact, emotion, meaning and compassion, with the latter mediated by engagement with natural beauty, were predictors of connection with nature. Importantly, knowledge based activities, such as observing nature and increasing understanding, were not related to nature connection. Similarly, purely utilitarian and dominionistic activities were not related to nature connection. In a third study (n = 72), contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty were operationalised in a walking intervention. This intervention was found to significantly increase connection to nature when compared to simply walking in nature – showing simple exposure isn’t enough.

Connection with nature

Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature.

Nature connection is an important factor in positive mental health and wellbeing. It acts as a mediator for wellbeing outcomes associated with exposure to nature. In fact, the wellbeing benefits of nature have been reported as being as important as established factors such as income and education. Evidence also points to nature connection being linked to the development of pro-environmental and pro-conservation behaviours.

However, we humans have created a culture that divides us from the nature that keeps us well. At a time when there is an urgent need to address health inequalities and support a more sustainable approach to the environment, there is a real need to understand the science of our connection with nature and identify how research and practice can support and inform decision makers going forward. Michael Gove is correct to say our emotional connection with nature matters – it can help keep us, and our environment well. However, there is a science of connection, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion that can inform environmental policy – after all people are at the root of the declining state of nature.


Kamitsis, I., & Francis, A. J. (2013). Spirituality mediates the relationship between engagement with nature and psychological wellbeing. Journal of Environmental Psychology36, 136-143.

Howell, A. J., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2013). Meaning in nature: meaning in life as a mediator of the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies14(6), 1681-1696.

Zhang, J.W., Howell, R.T., Iyer, R., (2014). Engagement with Natural Beauty Moderates the Positive Relation between Connectedness with Nature and Psychological Well-Being, Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Keltner, D. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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Shmapped – mapping the good things in nature and the City

Just under a year ago I wrote about a new project we’re involved with, namely IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. Funded by a £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 with nature is good for people, the project broadly investigates the ‘dose’ and which particular qualities and features of green space boost people’s health and personal enjoyment.

Our team, based at the University of Derby, is leading one of the 4 work packages needed to investigate these issues. Our study uses a smartphone app to understand how green and built spaces affect our wellbeing. The idea is that the app will record how people interact with their local green and built spaces and prompt them to map and notice the good things they see – noticing the good things in nature helps people get connected with nature. It’s been a rapid development process in order to arrive at a time when people are out and about! But the app, Shmapped, is in app stores now!

Defining the Journey

Conversational UI

Primarily aimed at people who live in Sheffield (hence the ‘Sh’), the app also works elsewhere, reminding users daily for 30 days to notice and map the good things, letting people record, photograph and rate each one. This is done through a ‘conversation’ with the ‘chatbot’ called ‘Shmapbot’, your companion for the month. The smartphone is also used to track activity, allowing us to get some really rich and useful data.

Final Design



There’s been many challenges. From sharing our idea and the constraints of a research study to the necessary privacy and security considerations. To bringing a research study to life and as engaging as possible for the user with the conversational interface. For those people in Sheffield the app tracks the user’s time and use of green spaces using ‘geofences’, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when they’re nearby. Being a research study, some users of the app will be prompted to notice good things in the built environment. The first 1000 Sheffield based users who complete the 30 day study will be eligible for entry into the prize draw with vouchers ranging from £50 to a top prize of £500, that’s around a 1 in 10 in chance of winning! There’s also the potential in the future to update the apps database to include maps of other areas – allowing research into understanding how green spaces are used elsewhere.

Using Shaped to notice and map the good things in Sheffield

So, if you know people in Sheffield please direct them to the app for Android and Apple iOS. Anyone who is over 18 years old can take part. If you’re outside Sheffield, give it a go! And if you’d like to use it more formally as part of work you’re doing, get in touch, we might be able to arrange access to the data. Meanwhile, get Shmapping!




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How Forest Bathing Keeps Us Well

There’s been a flurry of attention on forest bathing recently. Originating in Japan, it is the practice of taking a trip into the forest for well-being benefits. Last year we completed a meta-analysis of 11 Japanese research studies into forest bathing, it was published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The paper considered the results in the context of a ‘3 Circles’ model of emotional regulation that helps reveal why immersing oneself in the woods is good for health. Continue reading

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Beyond Knowing Nature – 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

Owing to the benefits to both human and nature’s well-being, and wide spread disconnection, a connection with nature is something many people and organisations are keen to increase. So there is a need to know how best to do this. We’ve already developed specific interventions, such as 3 good things in nature, but our wider framework of effective routes to nature connection has just been published in Plos One. I’m excited about this work is it provides guidance for those seeking to re-connect people with nature, indeed it has been central to much of our recent nature connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trusts highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign. Continue reading

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