Nature and Wellbeing: Tapping into the Secret Network

In nature everything is connected. Wolves, bears and fish; deer and trees; ants and aphids – as described by Peter Wohlleben in The Secret Network of Nature. The ecosystem is so complex that simple rules of cause and effect don’t apply. A small change can have unintended large consequences. Yet in science we strive to control variables and seek causality in order to obtain the evidence to inform our decisions – evidence that nature is good for humans.

Research accuracy can suffer if all confounding factors are not included in our analyses, yet we can’t fully comprehend all the connections in nature. It’s impossible to evaluate the overall balance, for example between ants and trees and the interactions that are key to the wellbeing of each. Sometimes it seems sensible to accept the network of relationships and focus on finding creative ways to engage with those relationships, rather than getting bogged down in trying to evidence that they exist.

People do not question whether fish need a river, birds the sky or apes the forest, yet people want evidence that humans need nature. Decision makers require (and we are working to supply) more evidence on the benefits of the relationship between people and the (rest of) nature. Those that question whether a close relationship with nature is good for our wellbeing should perhaps consider some fundamental questions. How did we arrive here? Are we part of the natural world? Sadly, when asked, most people are not sure that they are part of nature. Little surprise, as relationships in nature can be fragile, and our detachment from nature is reflected in our thinking, our discourse and increasingly in our culture. This is also reflected in traditional models of human health that view people as separable from their environment. The biomedical model of medicine is based on a deviation from ‘normal’ – health being a function of the individual. Recently, ‘one health’ models of health have been proposed that recognise that humans are embedded within the rest of the natural world

Another parallel from ecology is that when we change conditions to ensure the survival of one species we can put the survival of another in jeopardy. When we focus on one relationship we weaken another. Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale, described nine types of human relationship with nature, and a similar perspective can be taken. The dominance of our utilitarian and dominionistic relationships has weakened our moralistic relationship with nature. The dominance of the scientific relationship has weakened the emotional and aesthetic relationships with nature. When we studied the nine types of relationship, we found five predicted a close connectedness with nature. Four did not.

As humans within a wider ecology, we too need balance, in what we do, in what we eat, in what we feel and in our relationships with nature. A sustainable relationship with nature is more than science, more than knowledge, more than facts, more than a resource, more than a challenge, more than a threat. It is also a network of joy, calm, meaning and beauty. We should do all that we can to sustain nature and therefore ourselves.

I increasingly see all things in terms of balanced relationships, people physically embedded in the wider ecology of life and mentally embedded in the wider environment. Our bodies and minds themselves a network of relationships. Although extended cognition and psychological arguments that firmly embed us in the environment exist, these relationships are not fully accepted – you guessed it, more evidence is needed.

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), the social scientist, anthropologist and systems theorist wrote that we should not be working towards control based on our imperfect understanding of the natural world. Instead we should be using our curiosity to work towards tapping into the secret network, improving our connection with nature and the wider ecology.

The secret network of nature is the secret network of wellbeing, the secret network of our thoughts, the secret network of our being. If a small change can have large consequences in an ecosystem, and humans are of that ecosystem, then it should come as no surprise that small interactions with nature can have a large positive impact on our wellbeing. That is why it is important to notice the good things in nature and ensure that there is a variety of nature to notice.


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5 Ways to Wellbeing with Nature

The New Economics Foundation Five Ways to Wellbeing from 2008 provide straightforward and popular guidance on the steps we can take to look after human wellbeing and they can be applied to nature based activities. People have also found that our 5 pathways to nature connectedness provide a valuable framework for engaging people with nature – for both human and nature’s well-being. I’m often asked how the two might work together, so this blog post suggests 5 Ways to Wellbeing – with Nature.

The National Trust have been using the 5 Pathways to Nature Connection

The 5 pathways to wellbeing are based on an evidence report that, in 317 pages, includes no specific nature based solutions. There are just two sentences noting that access to green space contributes to well-being. Similarly, guidance on the 5 ways to wellbeing from the NHS & Mind overlooks nature – we seem to be obsessed with ourselves, other humans and our work, but not the natural world that sustains us. So it’s no surprise that a subsequent NEF report on applications also provides very little on the role of nature based solutions, with brief mention in planning policy of ‘opportunities to traverse green space’ on foot or bike can influence activity levels. Green space is not just an environment to cross – we can pause to take notice. Ten years on it’s time for an update that reflects the latest evidence and ‘one health’ perspective.

This situation is no surprise as despite increasing recognition of the health and well-being benefits we get from nature, and a connection to it – nature is not apparent in our everyday lives, in models of workplace wellbeing and models of health. Recently a ‘One Health’ model of health in BMJ Global recognises that humans are embedded within the rest of the natural world – that the fundamental pathway to wellbeing is a healthy planet. Key guidance on wellbeing such as the 5 ways to wellbeing should recognise this.

Curiously, the role nature plays in our wellbeing is recognised in policy, for example the UK Government’s 25YEP.  Further, the latest evidence suggests nature connectedness is additive and more important for wellbeing than visiting natural places. Nature connectedness also brings pro-nature conservation and pro-environmental behaviours – essential as the one way to a global crisis in wellbeing is an unhealthy planet – and we’re currently heading to a permanently unhealthy world.

So let’s combine the 5 ways to well-being with the 5 pathways to nature connection and propose 5 Ways to Wellbeing with Nature:


Connect – social relationships are important for wellbeing, be with and talk to people – about anything, about nature! We are social animals and as part of the wider natural world nearby nature also helps us feel connected – nature offers socially isolated people a way of feeling connected. Connecting with the beauty of nature also brings pro-social behaviours.

Take notice – be aware of the world around you, savour the moment, notice nature. Noticing nature, its beauty, your emotions in nature and what it means to you are key to developing a closer relationship with nature – which is good for you and provides something to talk to others about.

Give – take part in community life, do something for a friend – do something for nature.

Be active – walk or cycle when you can, to green spaces to connect with others, to notice, to give and learn – connect actively with nature. Research shows that activity in natural environments also brings greater benefits than exercise elsewhere.

Learn – try something new, rediscover your childhood wonder for nature, learn that people are part of the wider natural world and nature matters for human health.


So, in sum the overlap between the 5 ways and 5 pathways can be seen as follows:

Connect – with nature, bringing together the 5 pathways to nature connectedness – Senses, Beauty, Emotion, Meaning & Compassion.

Take Notice – of nature – Senses, Beauty, Emotion, Meaning are pathways to nature connection.

GiveCompassion and caring for nature is a pathway to nature connection and a healthy planet.

Be active – connect actively with nature.

Learn – Learn about your relationship with nature, share your experiences.

As you can see there’s plenty of scope to include the benefits of nature, and connection to it, within the pathways. There’s a need to revise and widen existing human-centered guidance on the 5 pathways to wellbeing which overlooks nature. Because it’s easy, because nature needs to be in our health, and in every decision we make. As ultimately there’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing.


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#3NatureThings – Moving beyond yourself to nature for wellbeing

Over the past couple of weeks a growing number of people on Twitter haven sharing their ‘3 good things in nature’ under the #3naturethings hashtag. This was kick-started by Issy Bryony Hardman @issybryonyh after we chatted the week before Christmas. In this blog I’ll share a little more of the story the 3 Good Things in Nature intervention, including the unpublished (yet revealing) comparisons to the original positive psychology intervention, 3 Good Things. After a slow start, there’s been a flurry of evidence in 2018 to show that noting the good things in nature each day improves nature connectedness and wellbeing – in children, in clinical and wider populations. That research is currently being written up or under review, but i’ve blogged about this before (in 2016, 2017 & 2018)

Noticing the good things in nature

Back in 2013 I developed the 3 Good Things in Nature approach as an intervention to improve nature connectedness. The evidence for the benefits from a close connection to the (rest of) nature wasn’t as strong as it is now, but from my personal reconnection through writing about nature I was convinced it would be important to develop the first interventions to improve nature connectedness. We conducted the research in 2013 and submitted it for publication in January 2014. The reviewers were favourable, “I very much like what these researchers are doing”, but they rightly suggested more data was needed. So we collected more data, resubmitted the research paper and by November 2014 the reviewers were again favourable, “This new data greatly improves the argument for proof of concept”. Unfortunately, the editor of the journal didn’t think the research would be of interest to the readers and we found that several other journals weren’t interested in the concept either. Ultimately, we found a home for the research in 2016, and it was published in 2017 and is available here.

I tell this story as it demonstrates the wider lack of interest in nature-based solutions for well-being. However, to ease publication, we did have to remove one part of the study, the comparisons to the original positive psychology intervention, 3 Good Things. Times are changing though and some people have greater vision – the good things in nature approach was central to the £1.3m NERC funded Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project which started in 2016. In that project we developed a smartphone app that prompted users to notice the good things in nature when they passed by a green space.

Noting the Good Things in Nature with Shmapped

Now for a little background on Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs). It has been hypothesised that we are programmed to be on the alert for threats or negative events to protect ourselves, so positive emotions are not always at the forefront of our minds. There is a breadth of research highlighting the link between negative emotions and ill health. Other research suggests that positive emotions act independently from negative emotions on health and people with positive beliefs and emotions have been shown to be more likely to lead healthy lives. PPIs aim to increase positive affect and well-being.

Brief PPIs have been associated with increases in well-being and the PPI we adapted was writing three good things a day, usually for a period of a week or two. This intervention has been found to increase happiness and decrease depression. The ability to be aware of positive things has been shown to be a strategy that results in well-being, with writing three good things having significant effects on well-being for up to six months.

Our focus was well-being through positive emotions, but also increasing nature connectedness, so we simply added ‘in nature’ to the intervention. In order to test the outcomes of using the three good things in nature intervention an experimental group was compared to a control group directed to write three factual statements each day for five days – these results have been published. However, a third group completed the existing three good things PPI to check that it didn’t improve connectedness to nature. Nature connection and well-being measures were undertaken at baseline, end of task (one week) and two months after completion.

As expected noting 3 Good Things did not improve nature connectedness – sadly without specific instruction people don’t generally notice the good things in nature. The well-being results were interesting though; we expected that people in both the three good things in nature and three good things groups would show improvements in well-being. The good things in nature group showed statistically significant improvements in psychological health, but the original good things group showed a smaller improvement that wasn’t significant. We also measured perceived stress and found a statistically significant 20% increase in perceived stress in the original good things group. No differences were found in the control group. These results are available here.

We then analysed the content of the good things people wrote about. The nature group wrote 272 words per participant on average, with the good group writing 284 words, very similar. A frequency analysis showed that the good things in nature group tended to write more often about the perception (e.g. hearing and seeing) of things. Further thematic analysis (1000 Good Things in Nature published here) has shown that the sentence content was always nature specific, for example, “Listening to the sparrows chattering in the hedge” and “Sun reflecting off the river”.

Although the good group were more likely to write about positive emotions, the content focussed on actions related to themselves, achievements, work and social processes in the past tense. For example, “Stood up for myself at work” and “Provided sound solutions for a client to facilitate access to work”.

Further analysis showed that the good things group wrote more about cognitive processes and quantifiers. Whereas in the nature group the fewer words associated with cognitive mechanisms and quantifiers was associated with improved nature connection. This suggests that the most successful approach to good things in nature is away for counting and cognitive understanding towards open and effortless, mindful attention to the good things in nature. This fits well with our wider pathways to nature connection research.

The analysis of the text provides an insight into why people simply noting three good things report higher levels of stress after taking part. Words related to the self were frequently used. The frequency in the nature things group was less than half that found in the good things group. The good things group also used words associated with work and social relationships. The significant increase in perceived stress could be related to the higher frequency of work related words, with participants potentially revisiting issues occurring during the day (e.g. standing up for themselves at work) while identifying their good things.

So, the message seems clear, turn to nature to build your micro-foundations of well-being, enjoy the everyday things in nature each day as it can deliver sustained increases in nature connectedness and improved well-being. And of course, it’s not just about us, it’s about the rest of nature. An increased connection with nature is associated with greater  pro-nature behaviours – after all, ultimately there can be no health without nature.

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Applying the Pathways to Nature Connectedness

Our research into nature connectedness has been named by Universities UK as one of the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its impact. Central to that impact has been our pathways to nature connectedness. In May 2017 our pathways to nature connectedness were published in the journal Plos One. The paper outlined the key findings from 3 years of research into the types of activities that lead to nature connectedness – the measurable psychological construct associated with human well-being and pro-nature behaviours. This blog tells the story of the application of the pathways, firstly with the Wildlife Trusts, then the National Trust and others.

More on the pathways later, but briefly, we used Kellert’s nine types of relationship with nature from 1993 as the framework. The nine types vary from aversion and utilitarian, to emotional and meaningful. Our research identify 5 types of positive relationship associated with nature connectedness. These are the pathways to nature connectedness, activities in nature that involve:

  • Senses
  • Emotion
  • Beauty
  • Meaning
  • Compassion

The four types of relationship that weren’t significant were fear of nature, dominionistic, utilitarian and scientific. These types of relationship are common, they can be seen as pathways for survival and progress that, unchecked, have led to nature’s decline – with the massive decline in wildlife and climate change it’s clear that the current human relationship with (the rest of) nature has failed. There is an urgent need for a new relationship, yet much engagement still promotes some of these types of relationship, nature as a resource, conquering challenges in nature and nature as facts and figures.

The first application of the pathways came while still conducting the research. We were talking to The Wildlife Trusts about their new 30 Days Wild campaign and we applied the pathways in order to review the long list of activities – or random acts of wildness. We highlighted the knowledge based activities and suggested occasions when the activity could be framed differently, by noticing the beauty of nature for example. Taking part in 30 Days Wild has repeatedly (see papers on the results from 2015, 2016 and 2017) been found to increase nature connectedness, wellbeing and conservation behaviours for the 100,000 plus people taking part.

A year or so ago the National Trust adopted the pathways as a framework they could apply to the design of  visitor experience activities and programmes in order to improve nature connectedness – to foster a closer relationship with nature for both human and nature’s well-being. In a fascinating year I’ve been working closely with the National Trust to help roll the pathways out across various parts of the organisation. I’ve also been introducing the pathways to other conservation organisations Recently I’ve presented the pathways to other conservation organisations (RSPB, Plantlife, Bumblee Conservation Trust, Buglife and Butterfly Conservation) to help inform their engagement work.

The first step in our work with the National Trust was an internal report introducing the evidence of the benefits of nature connectedness and the pathways. A series of workshops with the people who develop and manage the visitor experience then took place, facilitated by videos and brief guidance on the pathways.

It’s been fascinating introducing the pathways and discussing them with a new audience, an audience with expertise in engaging people with nature. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, how the pathways can help tweak existing activities or inspire new ideas. Taking the focus away from knowledge and identification, although challenging for some, has been widely embraced – for example giving people a ‘licence to talk about emotions’. An example of feedback on the pathways can be seen below.

So, let’s look at the pathways in more detail.

Senses – once you’re out in nature this is unavoidable, but prompting moments to pause and notice is essential, the simple things like listening to birdsong and smelling wild flowers, touch the bark, smell the pine needles, listen to the wind through the leaves. It’s also possible to prompt such engagement through arts installations, such as the giant ear-trumpet above picking up the sound from the surface of a lake – these ‘habitats for connection’, afford engagement.

Emotion – Fostering an emotional bond with, and love for nature. There are many creative ways to achieve this, but it can include talking about, and reflecting on your feelings about nature. Helping people find wonder in nature, the joy and calm it can bring. Simply highlighting the pleasure people find in nature, rather than the setting out the facts and figures. Further guidance comes from our work into what people find to be the ‘good things in nature’ – the sensations, changes over the seasons. changing weather, active wildlife, colours and beauty.

Beauty – activities that engage people with the aesthetic qualities of nature. Appreciating natural scenery or simply noting the beauty of a beetle before labelling it – trying to capture nature’s beauty through art or in words. Research shows that the wellbeing benefits of nature connectedness are significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty.

Meaning – Our minds continually extract meaning and nature inspires the greatest poetry and art – nature clearly means a great deal to us. From Keats’ Ode to the Nightingale or the Daffodils of Wordsworth:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils; beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gregory Bateson noted that when finding meaning were engaged in thinking that is most in tune with nature – metaphor is the language of relationships, the language of nature. Meaning can include the properties of a place, natural symbolism to represent an idea and the signs of nature. Meaning can pull together the other pathways – birdsong is what emotions sound like. Prompt people to consider what nature means to them. What’s their favourite local tree & why?

Compassion – when connected to nature our sense of self can be extended to include nature. This leads to a moral and ethical concern for nature as harming nature is harming ourselves. Compassion can range from making ethical product choices to being directly concerned with animal welfare. Prompt people to consider what they could do for nature. Why not make a home for nature?

Missing from the pathways is one of the main relationships we try to foster with nature – facts, figures, identification and knowledge. This can be difficult for some to accept – not being able to identify birds and trees makes national headlines!

‘Interpretation panels’ typical aren’t about interpretation, they present facts, figures and science.

Assaulted by facts when walking through the trees

What types of lasting relationships are based on facts and figures? It should come as no surprise that a closer, healthier and sustainable relationship with nature comes through noticing, emotion, finding beauty and meaning, compassion.

What types of lasting relationships are based on facts and figures?

Creating habitats for connection – So rather than describe what a blackbird looks like, highlight the joy in listening to its song. Rather than explain how to identify a tree by its leaves, prompt people to watch how the breeze moves them. Rather than recording and ticking off species, watch them going about their lives. Rather than conquering the outdoors, find awe and wonder in being there. Make contact, reflect and experience emotion, meaning and the beauty of nature – pause – joy in the perception of the world.

Prompts to pause and explore the pathways

Provide more than facts and figures

A prompt to pause, lie back and watch the canopy.

Our work with the National Trust has been applied to a refresh of their ’50 Things’ campaign, applying the pathways has seen the dominionistic ‘climb a tree’ become ‘Get to know a tree’ – children can still climb a tree, but a broader range of activities will be given in order to develop a more meaningful relationship with nature. We should not forget that nature is AMAZING — we have to remind ourselves at every opportunity what is wonderful, meaningful, beautiful about the natural world and what we can do to support it.

Richardson, M., & McEwan, K. (2018). 30 Days Wild and the relationships between engagement with nature’s beauty, nature connectedness and well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1500.

Richardson, M., McEwan, K., & Garip, G. (2018). 30 Days Wild: who benefits most?. Journal of Public Mental Health, 17(3), 95-104.

Richardson, M. (2018). Growing our care for nature. National Trust.

Lumber, R., Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2017). Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection. PLoS One, 12(5).

Richardson, M. & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology8(1), 1-32.

Richardson, M., Cormack, A., McRobert, L. & Underhill, R. (2016). 30 Days Wild: Development and Evaluation of a Large-Scale Nature Engagement Campaign to Improve Well-Being. PLoS ONE11(2): e0149777. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149777

Richardson, M., Hallam, J. & Lumber, R. (2015). One thousand good things in nature: The aspects of nature that lead to increased nature connectedness. Environmental Values, 24 (5), 603-619.

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Nature for All: Nature is All

It’s been a very busy few months as awareness of nature connectedness keeps on growing. Last week the new #NatureForAll “Connecting People with Nature” publication was launched at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Egypt. The report passed through 41 reviewers from 22 countries on 6 continents and I am pleased to be a co-author. You can find the full report and recommendations for decision makers on the Nature for All website.

So what else has been happening? A lot! I recently counted the number of research papers mentioning ‘nature connectedness’, the chart below shows the rapid growth from zero in 2001. Of course, there’s a long history of people’s relationship with nature, but nature connectedness provides a specific construct to focus on. It has benefits for human wellbeing, nature’s wellbeing, we can measure it and change it.

I’ve submitted two papers recently that will hopefully add to the chart above. One is on well-being benefits and how a smartphone based urban nature connectedness intervention brought about clinically significant improvements in mental health. The second introduces findings from a new populations measure of nature connectedness, the relationship to conservation behaviours and reveals the changes in our connection with nature over the lifespan, including undertones of teenage dips when they get their kicks elsewhere. I’ll blog about both in more detail when they are published.

The benefits of nature and a close relationship to it should come as no surprise as we evolved to exist in, and make sense of, the rest of the natural world. A recent blog of mine covered evidence for this embedness and how we are interconnected within nature, a symbiotic relationship found throughout wider ecology. Another interesting paper continues this exploration showing how people are ‘walking ecosystems’ – the body as ‘a host plus billions of microbial organisms working symbiotically to form a functioning ecological unit’.

In 2010 Stevens presented an ecopsychological of health that contrasted to existing models which view people as separate from the environment, affected by specific events. Given the health benefits of nature, I’ve agued that this embeddedness within the wider natural world provides a new paradigm for well-being and a need for a revised model of health. Away from the ‘biomedical’ approach based on a deviation from a individuals deviation from ‘normal’, beyond the ‘biopsychosocial’ model which included biological, psychological and social factors (Engel 1977), to an embedded model based on ‘biopsychophysis’, reflecting how health depends on the unity of biology, psychology and nature.

Such a model would heighten the awareness of the depth of our relationship with nature and our need for nature. A realisation that a healthy planet brings the ultimate wellbeing benefit. A realization urgently needed as the evidence of the ill-health of the planet mounts. Recently, the WWF Living Planet Report showed that 60% of animals have been lost since 1970. These shocking findings drew little attention from the mainstream media, but those that did cover it clearly indicated the scale of the issue – “The world must thrash out a new deal for nature in the next two years or humanity could be the first species to document our own extinction, warns the United Nation’s biodiversity chief.”

There is a huge disparity in awareness and coverage of climate change and biodiversity loss. A quick Google news search in the summer revealed 50 million news articles on climate-change and in comparison just 1 million news articles that mention biodiversity. Yet, although inter-related there are important differences – “We are rapidly running out of time. Only by addressing both ecosystems and climate do we stand a chance of safeguarding a stable planet for humanity’s future on Earth,” Prof Johan Rockström, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Recently, we’ve started a new PhD project (funded by the University of Derby) specifically into pro-nature conservation behaviours, in contrast to mainly environmental behaviours that broadly relate to reducing carbon footprint. Of course, we’ll be looking at the role of nature connectedness in encouraging the pro-nature cconservation behaviours required for a healthy planet, and therefore healthy people.


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Mapping Good Things in the City to Improve Well-being

Last summer I wrote about the launch of Shmapped, our smartphone app to study how green and built spaces affect our wellbeing. Shmapped is part of the £1.3 million Natural Environment Research Council funded project IWUN: Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature. The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby has completed analysis of a chunk of the data after 10 months of data collection – there’s a lot of data! I’ll publish blogs about the results in the future, but signs are good with noting the good things in nature leading to significant improvements in well-being.

Shmapped, and IWUN, is based in Sheffield (Sheffield Mapped), however we’ve now launched the Derby version, Good Things Derby on Android and Apple iOS. If you’re outside Derby, you can still use it, but it won’t be aware of your local green spaces.

Good Things Derby records how people interact with their local green and built spaces and prompts them to map and notice the good things they see. We’re asking people who live and work in and around Derby to use the app for 7 days – there’s a prize draw for those who do. The app reminds users to notice and map the good things, letting people record, photograph and rate places.  The smartphone is also used to track activity, allowing us, with the help of the Data Science Research Centre at the University of Derby, to visualise some really rich and useful data about how people use and rate the city – as shown in the images below from Sheffield.

Some places people mapped and pictured in Sheffield

A ‘Heat map’ of some of the good, and not so good, places in Sheffield

To be as engaging as possible users interact with the app through a ‘conversation’ with a ‘chatbot’, your companion for the week.  For those people in Derby the app tracks the user’s time and use of green spaces using about 1000 ‘geofences’, reminding them to notice the good things in nature when in green spaces in, and up to 10km away, from the city. Being a research study, some users of the app are prompted to notice good things in the built environment.

A chat with the chatbot

As well as an intervention to improve wellbeing, Shmapped is showing us that the app provides a promising tool for monitoring green space usage – but there’s a huge amount of data to analyse. So please take a look, especially if you’re in Derby.

Using Shmapped to notice and map the good things in Sheffield


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Why does a connection with (the rest of) nature improve well-being?

Nature is good for our well-being. It is increasingly accepted that having nature nearby is important for human well-being. There are now Government policies on connecting people with nature for well-being, such as the United Kingdom’s 25 Year Environment Plan. This plan includes a ‘Natural Environment for Health and Well-being’ programme to promote nature for well-being. As well as simply having nature nearby, we now know that the relationship between people and the rest of nature, our nature connectedness, is important. Recent evidence suggests that connection with nature is more important for mental well-being than simple exposure to nature. However, we don’t understand how a connection with nature leads to improved mental well-being. Research based on the successful Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign has just been published that starts to tell that story. You can read the full article in the journal Frontiers. This blog provides a summary, looking how a connection to nature brings well-being through emotions and beauty.

Before we think about emotion and beauty there is a need to know how the benefits of nature are currently explained. The main models used to explain the well-being benefits of exposure to nature are based upon restoration. Attention Restoration Theory and Stress Recovery Theory help explain how nature restores us. However, nature is also good for us when we’re not feeling run-down. There is also research that suggests the benefits of nature connectedness are not explained by restoration based theories. So, let’s look at two other potential reasons.

Firstly, emotions. Being connected with nature is about feeling close to the wider natural world. A relationship that helps us feel good. So emotions could well help explain how nature connectedness is good for well-being. Emotions aren’t just feelings, they are linked to the function of our bodies. Our nervous system, heart and brain. As different emotions come and go, they shape and direct what we do. Regulating emotions is a very important and almost constant function of human life. It helps us respond to and deal with everyday demands in an appropriate way. Research shows that our ability to keep our emotions regulated is important for well-being.

In 2016 we studied Japanese research into forest bathing. The results showed that the benefits of being in the forest could be explained in the context of a ‘3 Circle’ model of emotional regulation. Three dimensions of our emotion regulation system are represented by 3 circles. Described below by a falcon for drive. An ash tree for calm. And a wild boar warning for threat. Each day we can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree). Each circle brings different feelings such as anxiety (the boar), joy (the falcon), and calm (the tree). Each circle also brings different motivations such as avoid (the boar), pursue (the falcon) and rest (the tree).

For wellbeing we need a balance between the three circles. Feeling good and functioning well comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. Sometimes theses emotions become unbalanced. Perhaps if we’re constantly driven and pressured to do well at work or school, with little time for calm, rest and connection with friends. This can reduce our positive emotions and our threat response can become overactive. We can become anxious when simply receiving an email for example. For these reasons, we proposed that helping regulate emotions could be a way that nature connectedness brings well-being.

Three dimensions of our emotion regulation system

The second way that nature connectedness could help bring well-being is based on the beauty of nature. Beauty is also a fundamental part of our lives. Our cultural history contains repeated references to nature’s beauty and beauty has been a topic of human thought for millennia. Western philosophy considers beauty as a fundamental aspect of ‘human being’. Recent research has suggested that noticing and engaging with nature’s beauty is key to the well-being benefits of nature connectedness. People who have a deeper response when viewing beauty in nature have better well-being. It has been proposed that noticing natural beauty brings about well-being by promoting a stronger connection with nature.

Thinking of our evolution, our senses evolved simply to make sense of the natural world. Beauty comes from easy sensory experiences that flow in. As we’ve evolved and lived within nature for millions of years the sights and sounds of the natural world flow in with ease. The beauty of nature brings pleasure without being useful in itself. As a simple sensory experience beauty is fundamental to our relationship with the wider natural world. The beauty of nature, like emotions, is at the core of nature connectedness. Research shows that appreciating nature’s beauty is key to developing greater connectedness to nature. Finally, research into physiological responses to noticing nature’s beauty match those observed during forest bathing and explained by the three-circle model. Given this evidence, we proposed that noticing nature’s beauty provides a second way for nature connectedness to bring well-being.

So we set out to explore the relationship between beauty, emotion regulation, nature connectedness and well-being. We did this using participants in The Wildlife Trusts successful 30 Days Wild campaign. For successive years we’ve found that taking part in 30 Days Wild leads to sustained benefits to well-being. For the third year we included measures of how strongly people respond to nature’s beauty. In a second study we measured people’s ability to regulate their emotions, how easy or difficult they found it to regain control after becoming upset for example. These two studies allowed us answer two questions. One, does noticing nature’s beauty aid the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being? Two, is the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being linked to emotional regulation?

By looking at people’s responses before and after taking part in 30 Days Wild we confirmed for a third time, that including nature in every day life for a month leads to sustained improvements in nature connectedness, well-being and conservation behaviours. People taking part also noticed nature’s beauty more deeply too. A closer look at the numbers showed that noticing beauty helped promote nature connectedness to bring well-being. This confirmed that noticing nature’s beauty is part of the way a connection with nature brings well-being. The three-circle model suggests that appreciating the beauty of nature can calm our more driven emotions, bringing contentment and the emotional balance needed for well-being.

Noticing nature’s beauty is key for the well-being benefits of nature connectedness.

We then looked at the relationship between nature connectedness, emotional regulation and well-being. This showed that those who found emotional regulation more difficult had a lower connection with nature, and lower happiness. Difficulty in emotional regulation was not associated with noticing nature’s beauty. This suggests that nature connectedness and noticing nature’s beauty, although similar, aren’t one and the same. Some further analysis revealed that emotional regulation helped link nature connectedness and happiness. This is the first evidence linking emotion regulation to the well-being benefits of nature connectedness. The results support our proposal that improving emotional regulation is a way nature connectedness brings about well-being.

Emotion regulation is key for the well-being benefits of nature connectedness.

So both noticing nature’s beauty and emotional regulation play a part in the relationship between nature connection and well-being. Yet, noticing nature’s beauty and emotional regulation weren’t related. This suggests that noticing nature’s beauty and emotional regulation are part of the relationship between nature connectedness and happiness in different ways. So there are two ways nature connectedness can bring well-being. Through aiding emotional regulation, but also through being tuned into nature’s beauty.

The research shows that well-being in nature is not just about visiting nature when feeling run-down. To access the wider benefits of nature connectedness, there is a need to feel close to nature and be tuned into its beauty. We evolved to make sense of nature, so let the sights and sounds of nature’s beauty flow in through your eyes and ears.


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