Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship

A great deal of valuable research has shown that being out in nature is beneficial for human wellbeing. Much of this work uses time and visits to nature as a key measure – they are both straightforward to record. However, this research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness – put simply a love of nature. Also, few studies have considered the various ways people engage with nature in concert to establish which types of activity relate best to well-being.

We have been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected and engaging with nature in simple ways relates to pro-nature behaviours and wellbeing. Our paper on pro-nature behaviours was published last year in People and Nature. The second paper on wellbeing has now been published open access in the International Journal of Wellbeing. This blog provides a summary of quite a long and involved research paper.

In sum, we found that a close relationship with nature and simple moments with nature really matter for wellbeing – so much so that the impact of spending time in nature was not significant. Building on our work on ‘noticing nature‘ you can see the impact of such findings in today’s launch of #BlossomWatch by the National Trust.

Noticing blossom matters for wellbeing

The Research

Let’s look at latest research paper in more detail. We looked at data from a nationally representative YouGov survey of 2096 adults to explore how the factors below related to hedonic wellbeing (i.e., happiness), eudaimonic wellbeing (i.e., worthwhile life), illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety), and general physical health:

  1. nature connectedness,
  2. time in nature (days a week spending more than an hour in nature),
  3. engagement with nature through simple everyday activities,
  4. indirect engagement with nature (e.g. nature TV and books),
  5. knowledge and study of nature.

Our primary focus was on examining, when considered simultaneously, the relative importance of these five nature-engagement approaches.

Full details of the complex statistical analysis are provided in the paper, but a consistent pattern of results emerged across multiple analytical approaches (i.e., correlations, linear regression, dominance analyses, commonality analysis). We found that time in nature was not the main (or significant) predictor of wellbeing – nor were indirect contact with nature or knowledge/study of nature.  Rather, nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities (e.g. smelling wildflowers) consistently emerged as being the significant and prominent factors in explaining mental health and wellbeing.

Even when we considered two basic components of a good life, the basic psychological needs of autonomy (i.e., a sense of control over one’s life) and relatedness (via relationship status), nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities still emerged as being significantly related to happiness, feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower rates of illbeing.

Although there are many complex factors involved in wellbeing, these results support suggestions that nature connectedness itself—tuning into nature—is a core psychological need and basic component of wellbeing.

The finding that spending time in nature is a lesser-factor may seem odd.  After all, solid research has demonstrated that time in nature is important for wellbeing. However,  as noted above, this research has generally not included individual factors of nature connection and engagement.  Findings from the current study suggest that when added to the equation, these person-based factors have stronger relationships with wellbeing than does time in nature. Previous research using time alone is likely to be measuring a close connection with nature and various forms of nature engagement – but not as well as using specific measures of connection and engagement.

Or put another way, imagine if dietary research had focussed on time spent eating and visits to the fridge. Dietary advice would focus on those. Of some use, but it’s what you do in nature, or what you eat, that really matters. Measuring fat content, calories and exercise means time eating would drop from significance. Recommendations are based on what is measured.

There are many different ways to spend time in nature and different types of engagement with nature. Not all are related to wellbeing.

Being connected and engaging with nature generally involves spending time in nature, yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with nature.  Time does not tell the full story.  What matters is how that time is spent—developing and being in a close relationship with nature.

Does amount of time spent together provide an accurate indication of the closeness of a relationship?

The ‘dominance analysis’ showed that nature connectedness completely dominated all the other nature-related factors in predicting a worthwhile life and lower levels of illbeing, and engaging in simple nature activities was ranked as second.  For happiness, engaging with nature through simple activities completely dominated all other nature-related factors, with nature connectedness being ranked second.  It is important to note that “complete dominance does not typically occur in real data” (Kraha et al., 2012, p. 4).  This speaks to the powerful impact that nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities has on our mental health and wellbeing.

This prominence of nature connectedness and engaging in simple nature activities in accounting for the variance in mental health and wellbeing was also evident in the results of the commonality analyses.  Nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities each uniquely accounted for far more of the explained variance in happiness (17%, 20%), a worthwhile life (25, 15%), and lower wellbeing (31%, 15%), than did time in nature.  Indeed, time in nature uniquely accounted for only 1% of the explained variance in each of happiness, a worthwhile life, and lower illbeing.

Time in nature is a better indicator of levels of physical activity – it often involves walking, cycling etc. So, when looking at general physical health, it was time in nature and nature connectedness that emerged as significant predictors of general physical health. These findings remained significant even when considering control over one’s life and relationship status.  The dominance analysis revealed a tie for first ranking between nature connectedness and time in nature. Previously we’ve found that visits to nature, rather than nature connectedness, was linked to health.

It should be noted that relaxing in the garden and smelling wildflowers were the key significant items in the simple activities group – although correlated to wellbeing outcomes, items such as listening to birdsong or watching wildlife did not emerge as significant individual items in the regression. While smelling wildflowers is a simple engagement activity, relaxing in the garden could include non-nature engagement activities. Hence results could also reflect the benefits of having a garden rather than simple engagement with nature.

That said, the consistent pattern that emerged across correlational, linear regression, dominance, and commonality analyses with respect to nature-related factors and individual wellbeing provides strong support for the notion that time is not the main factor in the nature-wellbeing link.  Rather, the key factor is a close connection with nature. Further, these results mirror, and go further, than the findings in our study on another national daaset published last year. The importance of connection and noticing nature was also confirmed in our recent analysis of a third national dataset. From three national datasets, a clear picture is emerging: that nature connectedness and noticing nature are key for wellbeing. Time and visits have role, but should not be the focus.

By not being tuned into the nature around us, our lives are poorer in terms of happiness and meaning.  Yet, as these findings suggest, tuning into nature—through simple acts like smelling wildflowers while relaxing in a garden—help to explain differential levels of happiness and meaning in individual’s daily lives.  Tuning in to nature is not about time, not about minutes.  It’s about moments. Feeling connected to nature and engaging in simple activities in nature explains mental wellbeing better than time spent in nature.

The Implications

The results also have important practical implications for nature-based programmes and governmental policies.  Perhaps foremost at a programme and policy level, would be a shift from focusing on getting people to visit and spend time in natural (often more remote) spaces to focusing on how people can tune in and connect with everyday nature through everyday simple activities. This would also help to enhance nature connectedness and thereby wellbeing – of people and nature. Additionally, the results suggest the importance of provision of garden’s for rest and relaxation.

The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at a wider scale to inform cultural programmes and urban designs to foster and prompt engagement with everyday nature. City planners could invest beyond islands of urban parks to ensuring that nature is brought to all residents, for example, by ensuring that city streets and neighbourhoods have trees and flowers alongside (or at least visible from) walkways and routes to public transport and shopping areas. Long-term planning for urban “greenways” connecting parks, public, transit, schools, and basic-necessity shops would improve the lives of all residents – if they were prompted and understood the value of noticing nature. As we know from previous research, most people do not notice nature.

#BlossomWatch is a great example of a campaign to notice and celebrate nature and it’s meaning in our lives. The National Trust is inviting people wherever they live to emulate Japan’s Hanami– the ancient tradition of viewing and celebrating blossom – the Trust is now making it an annual tradition, asking people to share the joy and hope that the sight of blush-tinted blooms will bring to help lift spirits and enable everyone to celebrate nature together. 

The findings also have relevance to mental health practitioners.  That nature connectedness predicted greater happiness, greater levels of feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower prevalence of illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety) beyond feeling one has control over their life and relationship status, indicates that nature connectedness measures may be a valuable tool when assessing clients’ wellbeing.  Simple, pathways-informed, nature activities could be prescribed to clients – indeed we’ve found that noticing the good things in nature brings clinically significant improvements in mental health.

Finally, national policies aimed at raising levels of nature connectedness, and tracking this growth, are required as an expansion to current policies which, in general, are often geared towards measuring time in or visits to nature. We join Lambert and colleagues (2020) in their call for nature connectedness to be included as a standard metric of wellbeing; we also expand this call to national and civic governmental bodies.

The results confirm an emerging and important finding: that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from spending time in nature. We need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need for greater public understanding that a close connection with nature is a key component of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life—a good life.

 

Richardson, M., Passmore, H. A., Lumber, R., Thomas, R., & Hunt, A. (2021). Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. International Journal of Wellbeing, 11 (1).
https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1267

 

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Actions for visible biodiversity help noticing nature and nature connectedness

Having a strong connection to nature leads people to undertake actions that help conserve the natural world. This isn’t surprising: those who feel psychologically close to and value nature are more likely to make an effort to conserve it. Recently we wondered whether this relationship is reciprocal. That is, we wondered whether taking steps to conserve biodiversity might actually connect people more strongly to nature.

The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data and we’ve published the full report ahead of peer review, you can take a look here.

It seemed plausible to us that conservation actions – especially those performed in gardens – might increase visible biodiversity, and this increased sensory contact with nature might in turn lead to increases in nature connectedness. Further, both care for nature and sensory contact are pathways to nature connectedness. Pro-conservation behaviours vary in terms of how much positive visible feedback they provide in terms of habitat and biodiversity, and therefore sensory contact with nature, they produce. For example, a shady log pile under your shrubbery most likely has less visible biodiversity and positive feedback than a sunny patch of nectar-rich flowers. And berry-bearing trees and shrubs such as Rowan and Cotoneaster, although visible habitat, probably support less visible biodiversity throughout the year than a bird feeding station – which in itself is visible but not a sensory nature experience.

We hypothesised that conservation actions that lead to lots of visible biodiversity and feedback (e.g. planting and maintaining pollinator-friendly plants and providing food for wild animals such as birds) will result in more sensory contact with nature than other conservation actions, such as maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles or other shelters for wildlife. Furthermore, we hypothesised that this increased sensory contact will in turn lead to greater levels of nature connectedness.

Creating visible biodiversity by planting pollinator-friendly plants

We investigated this using data from Natural England’s People and Nature Survey in the UK, a large national survey that includes items that measure noticing nature, nature connectedness, and pro-nature conservation behaviours. We looked at responses from 4206 people. As we worked with an existing survey choices of pro-nature conservation actions were limited. There can also be some debate about whether the actions produce attractive habitat or visible biodiversity – or both. And that will also be subjective. So further work will be required, but the current work provides proof of concept.

As we expected, the two conservation actions that we expected to promote most visible biodiversity and feedback – maintaining wildflowers and putting out food for wildlife – were significant predictors of the extent to which participants reported noticing nature. In contrast, the two other conservation actions, which would be expected to produce less visible biodiversity and feedback (maintaining fruiting plants and creating log piles), were not related to the amount of nature that participants reported noticing. It’s interesting that of the two more visible habitat actions one was non-significant and the bird feeders that clearly attract wildlife were significant.

How much noticing nature people reported was in turn positively related to their levels of nature connectedness. Importantly, the relationship between pro-nature conservation behaviours and nature connectedness was mediated by the extent to which participants noticed nature. Or another way of putting it: the results suggest that certain nature conservation actions lead to people noticing more nature, and this increase in noticing nature leads to an increase in nature connectedness.

These results mirror previous findings that increasing the amount of nature noticed leads to a stronger connection to nature and extends those findings by showing how noticing is also facilitated by conservation actions that promote visible garden biodiversity and feedback.

Taking actions to create visible biodiversity helps noticing nature which improves nature connectedness, which motivates actions for biodiversity!

These results point to a relatively simple way to boost human connection to nature: encourage garden behaviours that boost visible biodiversity.

The results also have implications for the design and management of green spaces. When creating and managing green spaces, consideration should be given to creating green spaces that contain features that promote positive visible feedback and biodiversity. For example, particular attention could be focussed on creating areas rich in flowers that attract salient pollinators, such as bumblebees and butterflies, or wetland areas that attract easily-viewed wildfowl, such as ducks, swans, coots and moorhens. Similarly, providing long vegetation in places around the otherwise neatly mown edges of urban ponds should provide places for dragonflies and damselflies to shelter, allowing them to be easily viewed by visitors.

Additionally, habitat features that promote salient biodiversity should be located in salient places. For example, if a woodland planting project contains some mast-bearing species such as oak or beech, then it would be desirable if some of these species were planted close to paths, so that the jays, nuthatches, squirrels and other species they attract can easily be seen by site users.

The results from this study also fit well with previous research and we’ve captured this in the figure below. The figure presents our previous findings that nature connectedness is linked to improved wellbeing through noticing nature; that nature connectedness is linked to greater pro-nature behaviours through noticing and that the pro-nature behaviours that increase biodiversity are linked to improved wellbeing. The results above complete the reciprocal relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature behaviours through noticing nature.

The key role of noticing nature

When we consider improving the human-nature relationship at a societal scale, a key aspect is sensory interaction with nature and creating positive feedback loops to combat the extinction of experience. The present research suggests that visible biodiversity is important. Visible wildlife can be amplified through programmes, events, community involvement in the places where nature recovery networks and people mix.

In sum, biodiversity loss is a sign that the human-nature relationship is failing. A new and sustainable relationship with nature is needed. It is becoming clear that ‘noticing nature’  has a key role to play in improving that relationship for human and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need to bring visible and salient nature to people and engage them with it. Both through nature recovery networks in urban areas and advice on visible nature conservation actions for the public.

 

Hamlin, I. & Richardson, M. (2021). Visible Garden Biodiversity Leads to an Increase in Noticing Nature, Which in Turn Leads to an Increase in Nature Connectedness. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/uamwg

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Nature Connectedness – For a new relationship with nature: Free Online Course

There’s no wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Climate warming and wildlife loss show that the existing relationship between people and the rest of nature is failing. Through a focus on nature connectedness, this free, online short course will show how we can build a new relationship with nature – for the wellbeing of both people and the rest of the natural world.

The Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby is leading the development of ground-breaking evidence that explains what nature connectedness is, how it can be measured, its benefits for human and environmental wellbeing – and, importantly, how it can be improved. This free MOOC covers that work.

The Nature Connectedness MOOC – for human and nature’s wellbeing

The course provides an opportunity for you to learn about nature connectedness and the value of having a strong relationship with nature. Made up of eight short units, the course encourages you to actively consider our relationships with nature, for our own well-being as well as for the longer-term benefit of nature and the natural world.

  • Unit 1 – What is Nature Connectedness?
  • Unit 2 – Why Nature Connectedness Matters: People
  • Unit 3 – Why Nature Connectedness Matters: Wider Nature
  • Unit 4 – Improving Nature Connectedness: Noticing
  • Unit 5 – Improving Nature Connectedness: The pathways framework
  • Unit 6 – Pathways Case Studies
  • Unit 7 – Using the Pathways Framework and Evaluation
  • Unit 8 – Scaling up – Societal Application of the Pathways

During the course, you will look at why nature connectedness matters and how it can be improved. You’ll learn about our Pathways to Nature Connectedness Framework and will look at how you can use this framework to positively impact our connections with nature, pro-nature and environmental behaviours and our wellbeing.

The course content is informed by nationally recognised research and written by Professor Miles Richardson, a Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness, together with colleagues from the Nature Connectedness Research Group.

The course is open to anyone and will be of particular interest to those who feel passionate about mental wellbeing, nature and pro-nature behaviours. Those completing the course will gain:

  • An understanding of the psychological construct of nature connectedness
  • An understanding of why nature connectedness matters for human and nature’s wellbeing
  • An understanding of how to improve nature connectedness

You can find out more and sign up for the nature connectedness MOOC here.

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Noticing Nature, Nature Connectedness and Time in Nature: Associations with Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic

During the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people have visited and noticed nature more. We were curious to find out how nature benefited the nation’s mental wellbeing during the coronavirus restrictions. The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data. Building on some of our previous research, the survey also allowed us to compare how longer-term physical and psychological relationship with nature, and shorter-term visits and noticing of nature were associated with wellbeing – and as human and nature’s wellbeing is rarely considered together, pro-nature behaviours.

Noticing nature matters

PANS asked several thousand members of the public questions about how connected they are to nature, how often they visit natural spaces and how much they notice nature. It found that visits to nature had increased by 40%, noticing nature had increased by 74%. The survey also collected information on pro-nature conservation behaviours and several wellbeing measures: happiness, loneliness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s life is worthwhile.

First of all, we analysed the extent to which these wellbeing variables and pro-nature conservation behaviours are predicted by people’s long-term relationship with nature: the time spent in nature over the past 12 months and nature connectedness. We found that both more time spent in nature and a greater connection to nature were positively related to several positive outcomes: life satisfaction, happiness, a worthwhile life and pro-nature conservation behaviours.

We then turned our attention to experiences of nature during the pandemic restrictions. Our analyses revealed that both the number of recent visits to green spaces and increased time noticing nature were associated with increases in life satisfaction, happiness and the sense of one’s life being worthwhile. The more people spent time in and noticed nature during the pandemic, the greater their wellbeing. Increases in noticing nature were also positively associated with pro-nature conservation behaviours and greater loneliness. So noticing nature makes you lonely!? Nope, as a cross-sectional survey the direction of this relationship is unknown, rather than increased noticing of nature increasing loneliness, the findings could well reflect that as loneliness increases people turn to nature and spend more time noticing it, buffering the effect of reduced social connectedness that has been found in other research.

Finally, we examined all of these variables together so that we could better understand the relationship between wellbeing and the quality of long-term and short-term relationships with nature. Interestingly, recent nature visits didn’t account for any increase in wellbeing over and above that caused by long-term visits. However, recent increases in noticing nature were associated with a greater sense of having a worthwhile life and more pro-nature conservation behaviours.

These results highlight the importance of having a long-term relationship with nature, but also suggest that recent increases in noticing nature can bring psychological benefits regardless of one’s historical relationship with nature.

The results also confirm an emerging and important finding: that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from simply spending time in nature. As well as spending time in nature, we also need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing – perhaps even more so during the pandemic.

 

Full report: Richardson, M., & Hamlin, I. (under review). Noticing nature, nature connectedness and time in nature: Associations with Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic.

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Benefits of Connecting with Green Spaces: An Evaluation Toolkit for Children and Young People

By Dr Gulcan Garip & Prof Miles Richardson

Our relationship with nature is failing, as evidenced by the loss of biodiversity and climate warming. This has led to calls to reconnect people with nature, particularly children. Programmes in green spaces are important for encouraging and enabling people to connect with nature and adopt pro-environmental behaviours, but there is a need to evaluate the outcomes. The Green Spaces Learning Places (GSLP) in London offered a range of activities for children and young people to encourage engagement with nature. In our latest study published in the Journal of Environmental Education, an evaluation toolkit was co-developed by researchers and practitioners to identify the impact of participating in the GSLP programmes on the following outcomes:

(1)            Understanding: Participants understand the value and importance of green space.

(2)             Confidence: Participants are confident to use green spaces, as part of our activities
or independently.

(3)            Nature connection: Participants develop a sense of place with green spaces, and
pass this down through generations.

(4)            Wellbeing: Participants have restorative and meaningful experiences in green
spaces.

(5)            Involvement: Participants take positive action for, and get involved with, green
spaces.

Sixteen schools took part in Green Spaces, Learning Places (GSLP). The evaluation resources were used with a pre-post survey of 504 school-aged children (5-10 years) and 54 young people (13-19 years), observation of 62 children, and interviews with 26 children and young people. Due to the young ages of some participants in the GSLP programs, existing traditional and validated scales were not appropriate for all participants and some outcomes required a bespoke approach. Therefore, a series of single item measures that directly corresponded to understanding, confidence, nature connection, wellbeing and involvement  were developed and used across all ages for consistency. Briefly, these were:

  • Understanding: ‘do you think parks and places like this are important?’ A ‘happy face’ response demonstrating a participant perceiving green spaces as important.
  • Nature connection: ‘how special are green spaces like this to you?’ A ‘happy face’ response indicated participants may experience a sense of place and meaning
  • Wellbeing, participants were asked ‘how does being in nature make you feel?’ A ‘happy face’ response indicated participants reported positive feelings about being in nature.
  • Involvement: ‘I want to take care of nature and green spaces?’ A ‘happy face’ response to this item indicated participants’ pro-environmental attitudes and likelihood of pro-environmental behaviour,
  • Confidence: ‘how confident or good are you at exploring nature and parks?’

Participants were asked to respond on a 5-point Likert scale to indicate their level of agreement with the items, an example has been presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Single-item measure to collect data on understanding.

Based on survey responses from the school-aged children (5-10 years) and young people (13-19 years), our findings suggest the GSLP programmes had a positive influence on increasing participants’ outcomes for the five dimensions we measured. Furthermore, interviews with participants and observation indicators were useful in providing contextual insights that supplemented the findings from the survey.

It was found that participation in GSLP programs significantly improved children’s (ages ranging 5-10 years) before and after ratings of the five outcomes, as shown in Table 1. Although the differences were significant, the changes were relatively modest.

Table 1. Primary School Mean Changes from baseline to follow-up – primary years

Baseline means Follow-up means % Increase
Understanding 3.51 3.62 3.1
Wellbeing 3.34 3.46 3.6
Nature connection 3.30 3.48 5.5
Confidence 3.27 3.46 5.8
Involvement 3.37 3.52 4.5

For the Green Talent program, 54 participants (aged 13 to 19) completed the survey questions with the smiley face response scales. A significant improvement across all dimensions was observed following participation in the program. Interestingly, the differences were much larger, as can be seen in Table 2. National surveys have found a notable ‘teenage dip’ in nature connectedness, this means there is a need for interventions with this age group and these findings suggest they can be very successful. Given the relationship between nature connection and mental wellbeing in adolescents, this is an area for further activity and greater returns.

Table 2. Green Talent Mean Changes from baseline to follow-up – Teenage Years

Baseline means Follow-up means % Increase
Understanding 2.55 3.19 25.1
Wellbeing 2.65 3.11 17.4
Nature connection 2.44 2.93 20.1
Confidence 2.35 2.98 26.8
Involvement 2.02 2.78 37.6

The findings from the psychological evaluation show significant positive influences based on before and after self-reports and qualitative findings related to the five outcomes, which supported the aims of the GSLP programmes. Ensuring sustainable delivery of these programs, with opportunities for children and young people to engage with green spaces as part of these programs, can allow for longer-term evaluation of the effects on participants, as well as on the conservation of green spaces.

The paper shows the value of the collaborative process which provides a model for others in evaluating similar programmes. Furthermore, the positive results related to the five outcome measures highlight the value of engaging children and young people with nature and green spaces through participation in well-designed programmes, not just for the positive impact on wellbeing for participating individuals but also for the conservation of our natural world.

 

Garip, G., Richardson, M., Tinkler, A., Glover, S., & Rees, A. (2020). Development and implementation of evaluation resources for a green outdoor educational program. The Journal of Environmental Education, 1-15.

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