Nature is good for us, but why? There’s plenty of evidence that exposure to nature is good for people’s health, well-being and happiness – with green spaces even promoting pro-social behaviours. However, less is known about why nature is good for us. Simply put, nature is good for us, because we are part of nature. We are human animals evolved to make sense of the natural world. This embeddedness in the natural world can often be forgotten and overlooked, mentally we can become disconnected from nature because we’re now deeply embedded in a human-made world. Emerging research is showing that knowing and feeling this connection with nature is also good for us, and it helps bring about the wider health benefits of exposure to nature. Knowing your place in nature brings meaning and joy!
My research is focussed on understanding and increasing this connection with nature, an interest that grew from reconnecting with nature in my local landscape. I pursue this because being connected is associated with greater pro-nature conservation behaviours and our own well-being. Having a connection with nature is good for the well-being of both humans and the natural world. This blog gives a brief overview of some of that work.
Our first intervention to improve nature connection was purposefully simple, something all of us can do each and every day, in most things we do. It is simply noting ‘3 good things in nature’ each day, from noticing the song of a bird to the breeze in a tree. We found writing down three good things in nature each day for a week led to sustained increases in nature connection – and that increase was linked with improvements in psychological health. We also analysed the content of the sentences in ‘1000 Good Things in Nature’, the themes describing the everyday good things in nature, providing direction for those seeking to frame engaging conservation messages, plan urban spaces and connect people with nearby nature.
We’ve also been involved in larger scale projects, The Wildlife Trust’s 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. Over the last couple of years over 40,000 people have taken part. Our evaluation found that participants had sustained increases in happiness, health, connection to nature and pro-nature behaviours. This was an excellent outcome, but for me a key point was that the improvement in health was influenced by the improvement in happiness (which makes sense), but this relationship was mediated by the increase in connection to nature. So spending time in nature helps people feel happier and more connected, and being both happy and connected makes people feel healthier.
As part of my work to find ways to improve our connection to nature, I also do research into understanding which individual differences make us connected. For example, simply reflecting on our nature – self-directed thinking and those reflective thoughts that can improve our self-knowledge. This is a genuine interest about one’s own values and attitudes, and can also involve reflection on the emotions that contribute to our concept of self – a self that might include the natural world, which is our connection with nature. This fits well with my definition of nature connection, ‘a realisation of our shared place in nature, which affects our being – how we experience the world here and now; our emotional response, beliefs and attitudes towards nature’.
Interestingly, in our research self-refection emerged as a greater predictor of connection to nature than mindfulness. By looking inward we can realise a closer connection to nature. From an applied perspective we should find ways to promote self-reflection, places to pause in nature, and ways to prompt reflection.
Finally, there is plenty of evidence that nature is good for us, but how does being in nature impact on our emotions, body and wellbeing? To explain the benefits of nature we need to understand our emotions and their underlying physiology. Our latest paper, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents three dimensions of emotion and supporting evidence to show how nature regulates emotions and the heart.
The three dimensions are that humans can experience threat, drive and contentment. Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), and different motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – each releasing various hormones in the body. For wellbeing we need a balance between the three dimensions – happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven at work for example, our positive emotions are reduced and we can become anxious or depressed.
We re-analysed previous Japanese Shinrin-yoku (forest-bathing) studies that had compared how the body reacts to being immersed in nature (woodland), to being in an urban environment. The results of the analysis supported the story told above. Finding that being in the woods was calming – activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban environment stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.
Threat, drive and contentment, and their links to our mind and bodies, are easily understood in the context of our everyday lives, providing an accessible physiological based narrative to help explain the benefits of nature. Such a neurophysiological and evolutionary explanation provides a compelling argument to convince others of the role of, and need for, nature in our everyday lives. With interventions such as ‘3 good things in nature’ and ’30 Days Wild’ providing simple ways to help engage people with nature each day, through both celebrating and reflecting on nature. All because doing so is good for nature, and good for you!
Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2017). Three good things in nature: Noticing nearby nature brings sustained increases in connection with nature. Psyecology.
Richardson, M., McEwan, K., Maratos, F. and Sheffield, D. (2016). Joy and Calm: How an Evolutionary Functional Model of Affect Regulation Informs Positive Emotions in Nature. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806-016-0065-5
Richardson, M., Maspero, M., Golightly, D., Sheffield, D., Staples, V. & Lumber, R. (2016). Nature: A new paradigm for wellbeing and ergonomics. Ergonomics.
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 ONE 11(2): e0149777. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0149777
Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., Harvey, C. & Petronzi (2016). A Report for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB): The Impact of Children’s Connection to Nature. Derby: College of Life and Natural Sciences, University of Derby.
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.
Richardson, M., & Sheffield, D. (2015). Reflective self-attention: A more stable predictor of connection to nature than mindful attention. Ecopsychology, 7 (30), 166-175.
Richardson, M., & Hallam, J. (2013). Exploring the Psychological Rewards of a Familiar Semi-Rural Landscape: Connecting to Local Nature through a Mindful Approach. The Humanistic Psychologist, 41(1), 35-53
A shorter version of this post was previously published on psychreg.org