Can citizen science make you happier?

A guest blog about taking part in our latest research project Nature Up Close and Personal: A Wellbeing Experiment, by Sophie Yeo from the new and excellent Inkcap a newsletter about nature, ecology and conservation in the UK.

Nature Up Close and Personal is a NERC funded project with UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Derby and the British Science Association: take part here.

I am sitting on a bench staring very hard at a thistle.

I am counting the insects that appear, but I don’t think I am doing a particularly good job. Several minutes on the ten-minute timer have expired and nothing has shown up. I am panicking about my blank recording form and the state of British pollinators.

Eventually, a bee arrives. Or is it a hoverfly? It darts away so quickly that I cannot identify it. Plus, I am getting distracted by a goldfinch singing in the adjacent apple tree. I refocus my attention on the thistle. Now there is a small fly. Should I record this species? I can’t remember.

When the time is up, I have seen three bees, a fly and a yellow ladybird. I have taken photos; my identification skills are not strong enough to accurately determine the species in the milliseconds that they spend on the thistle. I wouldn’t say I’m feeling relaxed, but there’s undoubtedly something calming about setting aside my usual whirl of thoughts and focusing on the world of this single plant.

I am taking part in a citizen science project – but one with a twist. In addition to counting the insects in my garden, I am also providing feedback to a team of scientists on how this activity is making me feel.

The experiment is being run by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology alongside the University of Derby. The insect counting activity is a classic citizen science experiment; members of the public are essentially instructed to collect local data that feeds into a wider picture of insect population trends. It is vital work: without a network of willing volunteers, the decline in pollinators across the UK would be much harder to detect.

But the scientists are also researching another question: does participating in citizen science make people happy?

There are certainly good reasons to think that it might. Miles Richardson runs the University of Derby’s Nature Connectedness Research Group, which focuses on links between the natural world and our mental health. His research has shown that activities that connect us to nature – such as smelling wildflowers or watching the sun rise – can improve our mental health.

Citizen science projects give people a reason to venture into the great outdoors and encourage an unusually forensic (and some might say mindful) approach to nature. While I often spend time in my garden, for instance, I rarely give my undivided attention to a single bloom.

Equally, it’s possible that taking a methodical approach to nature could undermine the psychological benefits forged through a more sensuous and emotional connection.

“If you’re counting pollinating insects, you’re deeply engaged with those insects, so it could be that will increase nature connectedness and wellbeing. But are you appreciating them or are you counting them? We don’t know if that kind of focused attention starts to interfere with your enjoyment of them,” says Richardson.

So the team is putting the theory to the test, asking volunteers to carry out a number of tasks and record their personal responses. Some, like me, have been asked to undertake a pollinator count, some to record butterflies, and others simply to notice the nature around them. Some participants are asked to multitask, both recording insects or butterflies while also noticing nature.

There are two excellent reasons to investigate this question of whether citizen science makes us happy and improves wellbeing.

Firstly, nature demonstrably improves mental health, but there are still questions over how best to harness this effect. Policymakers, planners and architects are among the professions that hope to optimise how people engage with the natural world; whether they should be prompted to notice and enjoy their surroundings, or whether it’s equally helpful to engage with the world rigorously and methodically.

The question is particularly pertinent given the solace that nature has provided during the coronavirus lockdown; indeed, the project was funded through a COVID-19 urgency grant.

“If we can have greater understanding about the impacts of nature on our wellbeing and the benefits to individuals, I think that helps us as society think more strategically about what we can do to support people who might be suffering through aspects of social isolation,” says Michael Pocock, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is leading the project.

In this case, if the experiment shows that citizen science does improve mental wellbeing, then future projects can be designed to maximise the psychological as well as the scientific benefits.

Secondly, if citizen science makes people happy, then nature itself could benefit.

Recent studies by Richardson’s research group have demonstrated that people who feel a greater connection to nature are more likely to behave in a way that protects the natural world. If citizen science projects encourage more people to form a meaningful connection to nature, then there is a clear benefit to the planet.

But this research project could provide an additional boost to efforts to preserve the UK’s declining biodiversity. Scientists rely on large networks of volunteers to collect the local observations that underpin their knowledge of the natural world – people who tend to be driven by scientific interest or concern for the planet. Proven mental health benefits may provide an additional incentive for people to get involved, leading to bigger and better datasets for scientists.

“Maybe it sounds a bit idealistic, or certainly optimistic, that we can have these genuine win-wins, where we can have this greater understanding of the world, but we also have people who are happier, feel better and care more. It’s all going in the same direction,” adds Pocock.

The notion that nature may be a salve to our minds has, it feels, become embedded in the country’s psyche in recent months. A flurry of books covering this idea of a “nature cure” (Losing Eden and The Natural Health Service are two wonderful examples) has encouraged many people to find peace in wildlife and greenery during these troubled times. But I often wonder whether this phenomenon exists beyond my own social bubble.

Experiments like this are useful because they reach out to new communities of interest: to people who enjoy counting and recording instead of feeling and observing. Personalities are varied and complex; perhaps nature can bring peace to them all.


The team is still looking for volunteers. Click here to take part.

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The Green Care Code: What explains Pro-nature behaviours?

Being connected to nature found to play vital role in pro-nature conservation behaviours.

There’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Yet, nature is in crisis – the Living Planet Report showed that 60% of animals have been lost since 1970 and in their 2019 global assessment, IPBES emphasized how the current era of mass extinction poses an urgent threat to human civilisation. Nature’s recovery depends upon changes in human behaviour, but which factors best explain pro-nature behaviours? Sadly, there is a huge disparity in awareness, coverage and psychological research into the behaviours that lead to climate change and biodiversity loss, yet “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.

Our latest research paper, published open access in People & Nature, is the first of its kind, using the first specific validated measure of pro-nature conservation behaviour (ProCoBS). Working with the National Trust we ran a nationally representative YouGov survey of 1298 adults to explore how the factors below related to pro-nature conservation behaviours using our new ProCoBS measure:

  1. Nature Connectedness
  2. Time in Nature
  3. Actively tuning into nature (e.g. direct engagement through listening to bird song)
  4. Indirect Engagement with Nature (e.g. nature books and programmes)
  5. Knowledge and Study of Nature
  6. Valuing Nature
  7. Concern for Nature
  8. Pro-Environmental Behaviour

Together these factors explained a 70% of the variation in people’s actions for nature – this is an unusually high figure for this type of research. Key factors that best explained pro-nature conservation behaviours centred on connection with nature: psychological nature connectedness and actively tuning into nature, which we know increases nature connectedness – psychological and lived nature connectedness if you like. Indirect engagement with nature was also a significant factor, along with pro-environmental behaviours.

Importantly, in analysis examining the relative importance of all the factors in explaining pro-nature conservation behaviour, time in nature, knowledge/study of nature, value/concern for nature did not emerge as significant – there wasn’t a relationship.  The lived experience of nature connectedness – engaging in simple nature-activities – emerged as the largest significant contributor to pro-nature conservation behaviour.  However, in reality, factors rarely work alone – commonality analysis revealed that just 15% of the variance in people’s level of pro-nature behaviours were directly explained by factors working alone. However, for the majority of occasions when variables worked together, nature connectedness and engagement in simple activities were involved 92% of the time.

The message is clear, nature connectedness and tuning in for simple engagement with nature need to run as a theme through our efforts to encourage people to do more for nature. When spending time in nature it must tap into the activities that increase nature connectedness and involve simple engagement. When studying and sharing knowledge about nature there is a need to ‘activate’ the pathways to nature connectedness – elicit emotion, generate meaning, celebrate beauty.

Speaking after the publication of the IPBES report, Sir Bob Watson, lead scientist of the work, noted the core issue in biodiversity loss was about humans and that we need to ask how do we become more in tune with nature? How do we relate to nature? This research confirms that the key is to tune in and develop a new relationship with nature.

However, wider analysis of the data, published jointly with The National Trust in the Noticing Nature report showed that most people are tuned out. Around 80% of people reported 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. 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– 40-50% more – than those with a weaker relationship.

Stopping, looking, listening to everyday nature is key to pro-nature behaviours.

The biodiversity crisis shows that our relationship with nature is broken (at least in so-called “developed” nations).  Our disconnect from the natural world has caused a spiral of disruptions in ecosystems worldwide.  To fix this, there is a need to understand both the factors that explain pro-nature conservation behaviours and the types of interventions that are associated with increasing these behaviours. Only then can effective measures be taken to improve the human relationship with the rest of nature in a way that will assist nature’s recovery. Findings from the current study highlight the vital importance that a close connection with nature, and engaging with nature through simple activities which enhance nature connectedness, play in catalyzing efforts to care for the natural world. And the bonus is that they improve human wellbeing too!

This research provides important direction for local initiatives and policies, a need to engage more people in the simple activities that build nature connectedness across all aspects of society for a new relationship with nature.  In essence, and in practice, we need a Green Care Code:  Stop—Look—Listen to the Nature around you.  Campaigns centred around such a code would comprise the pathways of sensory contact, emotion, beauty, and meaning – strengthening our connection to nature and moving us to acts of compassion towards the rest of the natural world.

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How does the weather and the season affect our connection with nature?

After a dry spring, we’ve had much more rain recently and I was wondering if weather and time of year affected levels of nature connection. Through the Nature Connection Index we’ve been measuring nature connectedness nationally since 2015. This has been intermittent because it was during the development of the scale and then for a specific project. However, there’s enough MENE data to take a quick look – and this blog presents a quick look rather than a formal analysis. It is real data, but not evenly collected throughout the year in a wide variety of conditions. Data collection continues though, so they’ll be opportunity for that.

Firstly, we pulled out the data for each year. You can see in the table that those completely or strongly agreeing that they ‘feel part of nature’ is around 45%. The higher this level is the more likely it is people will do more for nature. And the more likely they’ll feel well. The mean looks like it may have crept up a few percentage points, a little encouragement. However, we can make a speculative estimate of target levels from other work – those who take action for nature tend to score well over 6. So 5.06 to 5.25 might show a start – or could be related to seasonal/weather variation given the months collected.

Year Month/s Collected n Mean NC % Feeling close to nature
2015 Nov 418 5.06 45.0
2016 Feb/Mar 835 5.07 43.2
2017 May/Aug/Sept/Nov 2758 5.17 44.3
2018 Feb/Mar 844 5.25 46.8

So what happens across the seasons? Given the uneven spread across the months I took a broad summer (May-Sept) to winter (Nov-Mar) approach. This suggests a slightly higher figure for nature connection in the summer (n=1866), 46.4% with high agreement (mean 5.23) compared to 43.6% (mean 5.11) in winter (n=2989). This is a small difference, but mirrors nature connection data gathered on single days by Duffy and Verges (2010) from a student cohort of 220.

Rain can be fun!

So what about the weather? We know weather is a theme that features when people notice the good things in nature. The MENE data is national and collected across a number of days so I used monthly average temperature and total rainfall records for each month. Based on the mean, there was a reasonable positive correlation between temperature and nature connection of 0.4. Using the percentage feeling close to nature this was again 0.4. Duffy and Verges found a figure of 0.4 too! This is interesting as they used an implicit measure of nature connectedness (an IAT), as they were concerned that explicit scales were subject to participant bias and measure stable beliefs that are unaffected by seasonal changes .

Similarly, there was a reasonable negative correlation between rainfall and nature connection of -0.4. Using the percentage feeling close to nature this was disappeared, falling to zero. Duffy and Verges didn’t look at correlation, but did find nature connection was lower when it rained.

I then had a quick look at wellbeing over time. Several wellbeing indicators are quite steady across the seasons, although happiness does show greater seasonal variation – and adding that into the data we find a correlation between happiness and nature connectedness over time of 0.5. That’s something interesting to follow-up. We know from other work that happiness is linked to connection and increases as nature connectedness is improved.

So what does all this mean? Is the link between weather and connection a sign of our latent embeddedness in the environment – we can detect physiological changes from forests & beautiful flowers for example? Duffy and Verges noted that their similar findings supported Emerson’s observation from 1836 that forces of nature affect human psychological functioning, noting the sentence “Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind” (p. 12).

This embeddedness explanation suggests that natural cycles have a negative impact though, there is seasonal variation in wellbeing after all. Emerson might suggest the wet and cold bring a different state of mind – but is it disconnecting? The mind might find it immersive and crisp. If every hour and season yields delight it can bring connection. There’s much to be debated here. Duffy and Verges approach measured preference for natural to built environments – perhaps there’s an evolutionary preference for the warmth of shelter when it’s cold and wet. Does preference for shelter in the winter mean nature connectedness is reduced as nature becomes ‘negative’?

Or is the explanation of the link between weather and connection simply that when it’s colder (when days are also shorter) and wetter we tend to spend more time indoors and less likely to be outside engaging with the good things in nature in ways that we know improves nature connectedness? Frequency of positive engagement nature matters. However, it’s worth remembering that the difference between winter and summer levels was small, around 2.5% – overall nature connectedness appears to be quite stable across the seasons. Larger differences have been generated by encouraging people to notice the good things in nature – in winter and summer.

In sum, there are some trends in the data and it’ll be an interesting question to ask as more data arrives. And it will arrive, from April 2020 this key indicator item from the NCI is included in the new People and Nature Survey – indeed the first monthly report was recently published – so we’ll be able to track what happens over the summer and beyond. Meanwhile, be sure to enjoy the good things in nature, whatever the weather!

 

Duffy, S., & Verges, M. (2010). Forces of nature affect implicit connections with nature. Environment and Behavior, 42(6), 723-739.

Thanks to Dave, and Holli-Anne Passmore for getting the data together.

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A Scale to Measure Pro-Nature Conservation Behaviours – ProCoBS

Nature is in crisis – the Living Planet Report showed that 60% of animals have been lost since 1970. This decline in wildlife – and the warming climate – both stem from human behaviour.  To find effective ways of increasing pro-nature behaviours requires better understanding and measurement. Thus, a reliable and valid measurement tool is needed. This blog is about the development of a peer reviewed Pro-Nature Conservation Behaviour Scale – published open access in the journal Sustainability.

Surprisingly, given the crisis of biodiversity loss we’ve been unable to find a validated scale focussed on pro-nature conservation behaviours – whereas there are dozens available to measure pro-environmental behaviours. There is a huge disparity in awareness, coverage and psychological research into climate change and biodiversity loss. Yet, “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.

ProCoBS – a tool to help understand the human behaviours behind wildlife loss.

When I’ve worked with the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts over the last few years they’ve both been keen to measure pro-nature conservation behaviours. So, thanks to a PhD post funded by University of Derby, we’ve developed one – the Pro-Nature Conservation Behaviour Scale – or ProCoBS for short. ProCoBS is a psychometrically validated scale measuring active behaviours that specifically support the conservation of biodiversity. You can download ProCoBS here – free to use, just reference the paper should you publish results from it.

So, what do we mean by pro-environmental behaviours (PEBs) and pro-nature conservation behaviours (PCBs)? We’ve argued that PEBs are mainly positive inactions (e.g. cycle don’t drive, don’t fly) that indirectly impact on wildlife via reduction of carbon footprint and resource use. Whereas PCBs are positive actions which impact on wildlife through improving habitat. Naturally, there is a relationship between resource use and habitat, but we’ve tried to focus on positive actions people can take to help the recovery of wildlife.

A second justification is provided by one of our papers published earlier this year. Statistical analysis in that study showed that pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours are distinct factors – that is they form two types of human behaviours that need to be thought of differently. Interestingly, we’ve had some robust challenge (often by psychologists), that it’s not necessary to measure pro-nature conservation behaviours as they are no different to PEBs. However, the best support comes through use. Indeed, such is the interest in pro-nature conservation behaviours the ProCoBS scale is already in use. It was used by the National Trust in a large-scale survey reported in the Noticing Nature report (we’ll be publishing more detailed analysis very soon). The short form gardening factor from ProCoBs is also included in Natural England’s People and Nature survey (alongside the key indicator item from our Nature Connection Index).

There’s much more details in the full paper, but in brief – to create ProCoBS we started by creating an ‘item pool’ – a long list of the many different types of pro-nature conservation behaviours individuals can do. This was refined through consultation with 25 wildlife and biodiversity experts (thank you to The Wildlife Trusts and others). Their opinions were subjected to psychometric scale development analyses to ensure the most meaningful items and best indicators were included in the scale. Data from 300 participants were used to develop the 18-item ProCoBS long form, as well as an 8-item short form. Through some clever analysis, the full scale was found to have four factors or types of pro-nature conservation behaviour the stats said could be grouped (Individual Engagement, Social Engagement, Planting, and Wildlife). In a second study, a subset of 250 of the original participants answered the questionnaire again. The data were used to assess test–retest reliability and construct validity. Results showed that the scale and its short form were reliable (full scale: α = 0.893, short form: α = 0.825) and valid. In a third study, a representative sample of 1298 adults in the UK completed the short form (thank you to the National Trust). Confirmatory Factor Analysis demonstrated a good fit for all factors, indicating that the ProCoBS is a psychometrically robust measure.

Creating homes for nature

Although  recent reports into the decrease in wildlife populations paint a depressing picture, the fact that these declines are accredited to human-induced actions means we can act and attempt to reverse or halt the current trends. Ecologists have started capitalising on green spaces in urban areas as important wildlife habitats. A large proportion of these green spaces are made up of private gardens, thus giving garden owners the possibility of supporting wildlife. Hence various conservation organisations encourage behaviours for wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Simple changes to domestic gardens have the power to increase native biodiversity, making gardens an important tool for nature conservation – these are the types of behaviour we included in the scale. However, not everyone has access to a garden. This does not mean that those people cannot engage in pro-nature conservation behaviours. Indeed, behaviours regarding political participation (for example) are more widely accessible and can have an important influence on public policy decision-making and social change. ProCoBS captures these types of behaviour too.

So, ProCoBS provides a much needed tool for measuring peoples nature conservation behaviours. This will enhance research and impact practical work in the conservation domain for a sustainable future. However, as habitats and cultures differ there is a need for cross-cultural examination of the scale – we know it works well in the UK and that is likely to extend to similar north western European countries – but it’s best to check.

While checking ProCoBS worked we ran it alongside some existing scales. As you’d expect nature connectedness had a positive correlation to ProCoBS of around 0.6. There was a similar level for PEBs. Interestingly, the relationship to the NEP (New Environmental Paradigm) – a measure of environmental concern – was weaker at around 0.3, perhaps indicating the ‘value action gap’.  There was a positive relationship to wellbeing too, but as one would expect, it was weaker, around 0.3.

Having the ProCoBS scale allows these and many other relationships to be explored further. ProCoBS facilitates the examination of underlying motives and factors that determine pro-nature conservation behaviours and, importantly, allows intervention and communication programmes encouraging these behaviours to be evaluated. The short form especially, will be useful to researchers and conservation practitioners who want to employ it in large-scale surveys alongside measurements of other psychological and behavioural constructs, or as a quick evaluation tool to assess the effectiveness of projects and interventions.

In sum, biodiversity loss will have similar devastating global consequences to climate change, yet behaviours to counter biodiversity loss are, by far, less studied than behaviours relating to mitigating climate change. The ProCoBS provides a reliable and valid measurement tool for those seeking to understand and improve actions for nature.

 

Barbett, L.; Stupple, E.J.; Sweet, M.; Schofield, M.B.; Richardson, M. Measuring Actions for Nature. Development and Validation of a Pro-Nature Conservation Behaviour Scale. Sustainability 2020, 12, 4885. https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/12/4885

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30 Days Wild: A 5 Year Review

Each year for the past 5 years we’ve been evaluating the impact of 30 Days Wild for The Wildlife Trusts. The impact of 30 Days Wild is confirmed each year with peer reviewed research papers published for each of the first 3 years (see below for details). We’ve now combined data from 1105 people who’ve taken part since 2015 in a 5 Year Review.

Back in 2015, the 30 Days Wild campaign set out to encourage people to value nature more highly in their own life, with an emphasis on commonplace and accessible nature experiences – every day of June.  These experiences, or Random Acts of Wildness, developed alongside the University of Derby, range from simple activities such as walking barefoot on grass or following a bumblebee, to activities which involve more time, such as building an insect hotel. In the first year 12,400 people signed up, but it’s grown each year with 400,000 taking part in 2019. A total of 1,000,000 people have taken part over the 5 years. Each year a sample of those taking part completed the evaluation beforehand, early in July and then again in September.

We’ve consistently found people taking part had sustained increases in happiness, health, connection to nature and pro-nature behaviours. So, it’s no surprise that the results over five years show that taking part in 30 Days Wild brings sustained increases to nature connectedness, health, happiness and pro-nature conservation behaviours. However, the combined data from over 1000 people provides a better indication of the levels of the significant increases. Overall we found sustained increases in nature connectedness of 17%, self-reported health of 29%, happiness of 8% and pro-nature conservation behaviours of 7%.

However, those overall figures hide an important story. Many people who take part in 30 Days Wild are already highly connected to nature. The combined data over 5 years allowed us to look at the increases for those who started with a lower level of nature connectedness – a mean of 38 compared to the overall mean of 58. For these people sustained increases in nature connectedness were a mighty 56% – indeed on average those starting with higher levels didn’t see an increase in connection. For the less connected, there were also higher increases in health 19%, happiness 13% and pro-nature conservation behaviours 11%. This shows two key things. First, the impact of simple engagement with nature everyday for a month. Second, the benefit of reaching out and attracting those not so close to nature.

Simple things in nature.

Interestingly, the greatest increases in health were found in those who started 30 Days Wild with the higher levels of nature connectedness. In earlier analysis we found there was a link between the improvement in happiness and health, a relationship facilitated by increases in nature connectedness. It could be that people with higher nature connectedness are closer to feeling and reporting greater health benefits. We know that nature connectedness is related to both feeling good (happiness, which feeds into health) and functioning well – that is dealing with life’s challenges which can also translate through to health. Further, we also know that time in nature, that could well increase during 30 Days Wild (and the summer particularly for those closely connected to nature), is related to health benefits more so than nature connectedness. So the increase in health for the more connected could simply reflect an increase in time spent in nature.

The climate crisis and wildlife emergency show that the relationship between people and the rest of nature is failing. 30 Days Wild shows that through engaging people with simple activities in nature that relationship can be improved – especially for the less connected. With that improved relationship bringing wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. Through a new relationship with nature people can live a happier, more worthwhile and sustainable life.

 

 

Peer-reviewed papers previously published about 30 Days Wild:

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

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. Doi: 10.3389/ fpsyg.2018.01500. Online here.

Richardson, M., Cormack, A., McRobert, L., and Underhill, R. (2016). 30 Days Wild: development and evaluation of a large-scale nature engagement campaign to improve well-being. PLos ONE 11(2):e0149777. Doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0149777. Online here.

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