The warming climate and biodiversity loss show the human-nature relationship is failing. Nature connectedness as a measurable psychological construct has provided a focal point for understanding and improving that relationship. Recent research suggests that higher levels of nature connectedness benefit both people and nature through promoting pro-nature conservation actions, pro-environmental behaviours, and greater mental wellbeing. Nature connectedness is therefore emerging as a key target for sustainable and healthy living. Our latest research, from work with the National Trust, uses data from a large national survey to explore how nature contact and noticing nature predict nature connectedness. The paper has just been published in the journal Ecopsychology where the final version can be accessed. The accepted version is available here.
A great deal of valuable research shows the link between nature contact and wellbeing. However, three recent large-scale studies have shown that wellbeing is better explained by nature connectedness than by nature contact alone. What matters more is what people do with their time in nature and the strength of their relationship with nature.
This matters because research and policy around ‘connection with nature’ often conflates nature contact and nature connectedness. To obtain the maximum benefits from nature engagement there is a need to distinguish between spending time in nature and actively engaging in activities associated with nature connectedness. This latest research also supplements our pathways to nature connectedness research by directly comparing the role of active noticing nature activities with passive nature contact in explaining nature connectedness.
To notice nature goes beyond passive, mainly unconscious, receipt of sensory information and incorporates attention, awareness and intention. We can walk in nature without paying attention to it. We can hear a bird without listening to that bird. Noticing nature is the basis of ‘noticing the good things in nature’ that has been shown to increase levels of nature connectedness, wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. Noticing nature activates the pathways to nature connectedness, mainly the pathway of sensory engagement – active engagement turns hearing into listening, for example. Noticing is the first step towards activation of the other pathways – appreciating beauty, making meaning, feeling emotions or compassion.
Building on our previous noticing nature work and motivated by the difference between contact with nature (e.g. to spend time in nature) and more active sensory engagement (e.g. to watch, listen and notice), this latest research explores how these two broad factors explain nature connectedness. In a national survey of 2094 adults, we asked questions about their frequency of contact with nature (e.g. walks and park visits) and noticing nature activities such as watching wildlife, smelling flowers and listening to birdsong. We then looked at how these factors related to nature connectedness.
The analysis showed that noticing nature explained levels of nature connectedness to a greater degree than contact with nature. Commonality analysis showed that when considered in isolation, the ‘noticing nature’ activities accounted for around 50% more of the variance in nature connectedness than time in nature. Clearly, noticing nature involves some contact with nature and noticing and contact worked in combination, accounting for about 63% of the nature connectedness levels. Watching, listening to and photographing wildlife were significant predictors of nature connectedness, whereas studying nature, looking at scenery through windows, observing the skies and collecting shells were not.
A great deal of policy work focusses on access to nature and increasing visits – encouraging people to spend time in nature is a good thing. However, it’s only a first step, for maximum benefits to human and nature’s wellbeing and to truly connect people with nature, there is a clear need to encourage people to spend time with nature. There is a need to consider what access and visits are for, what types of activity might be offered or encouraged and the design of green spaces close to where people live.
In our study, noticing nature explained levels of nature connectedness over and above simply spending time in nature. Governments, designers and planners, policy makers, health and social care services, educators and so on can support active engagement with nature. Nature can be brought to the places people live. For example, increasing opportunities to listen to birdsong can be achieved by creating suitable habitat for breeding songbirds. Similarly, noticing bees and butterflies could be facilitated by managing grassland for these insect groups. Complementing habitat management, urban design and event programming can have a significant role in drawing attention to these features to increase levels of noticing and engagement. All to create moments with nature to support sustainable and healthy living.
Richardson, M., Hamlin, I., Butler, C.W., Thomas, R. and Hunt. A. (2021). Actively Noticing Nature (Not Just Time in Nature) Helps Promote Nature Connectedness. Ecopsychology ahead of print. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2021.0023