In ‘The Unfrozen Moment – Delivering A Green Brexit,’ Secretary of State Michael Gove sets out his vision on the future of our natural environment. In this speech, and at the Green Alliance event a week earlier, I was struck by the recurring themes of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion. Four aspects of our relationship with the natural world that our recent research has linked to improving our connection with nature – see my blog and the open access paper for more detail. It is great to hear the Secretary of State speaking from the heart. However, the speech, see excerpt below, infers a distinction between such themes and science. Having evidence based policy makes sense. This blog points out that there is science of beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion and this should also form part of the evidence base that informs environmental policy.
“I grew up with an emotional attachment to natural beauty which inevitably influences my feelings towards questions on everything from architecture to ivory. But while natural beauty moves us deep in our souls, environmental policy also needs to be rooted, always and everywhere, in science.”
In a second excerpt Michael Gove, talks of compassion, our connection with nature and its place in our wider well-being:
“I am an environmentalist first because I care about the fate of fellow animals, and I draw inspiration from nature and I believe that we need beauty in our lives as much as we need food and shelter. We can never be fully ourselves unless we recognise that we are shaped by forces, biological and evolutionary, that tie us to this earth that we share with others even as we dream of capturing the heavens.”
So let’s take a look at the science of beauty, emotion, meaning, compassion and our connection with nature (which has it’s own science as a psychological construct).
Michael Gove clearly appreciates nature’s beauty. A couple of research papers by Zhang have considered the role of nature’s beauty in nature connectedness and the associated benefits of well-being and pro-social behaviour. The first looked at how a connection to nature is related to well-being. In two studies the authors found that the positive relationship between a connection with nature and satisfaction with life was only significant for those people attuned and engaged with nature’s beauty. The second research article focused on another benefit of nature – pro-social, or helping behaviours such as empathy and generosity. Once again these positives were found to be linked to nature’s beauty.
Michael Gove speaks of an emotional attachment to nature and the evolutionary basis of our connection. Our recent paper, published open access in Evolutionary Psychological Science, presents a model that helps explain our emotional relationship with nature, and how nature regulates emotions and the heart. We know that emotions have a biological basis and the affect-regulation system controls our heart-rate, muscles and the way our brain functions. We also know that many of the wellbeing benefits of nature relate to positive emotions. Prof Paul Gilbert OBE, has shown that that both our evolution, and research evidence, can be represented by three dimensions to our emotion regulation system. This 3 Circles model includes two types of positive emotions – drive or contentment. We can experience threat (the boar), drive (the falcon) and contentment (the tree).
Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), motivations (avoid, pursue and rest) – 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. Paul’s work used this ‘3 Circles’ model as a foundation for Compassion Focused Therapy, used to overcome mental health issues. Our research shows that it can also explain how exposure to nature effects our body, our emotions and our well-being.
Michael Gove speaks of the soul. Spirituality relates to our inner experience and beliefs that give meaning to existence and go beyond the current context. Howell, Passmore and Buro, found that meaning in life is part of the story of the link between nature connection and well-being. Similarly, Kamitsis & Francis looked at the role of spirituality in the link between connection to nature and well-being, they found that being engaged with, and having a sense of connection to nature was linked to both greater spirituality and mental well-being. The two studies together suggest that finding meaning to our existence in a shared natural world is both part of nature connection and a likely part of the positive impact on well-being.
Beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion
Our latest research has revealed there is a need to go beyond activities that simply engage people with nature through knowledge and identification, to pathways that develop a more meaningful and emotional relationship with nature. The research started with two surveys (total n = 321) of engagement with, and valuing of, nature activities structured around the nine values of the Biophila Hypothesis. The two sets of analyses confirmed that contact, emotion, meaning and compassion, with the latter mediated by engagement with natural beauty, were predictors of connection with nature. Importantly, knowledge based activities, such as observing nature and increasing understanding, were not related to nature connection. Similarly, purely utilitarian and dominionistic activities were not related to nature connection. In a third study (n = 72), contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty were operationalised in a walking intervention. This intervention was found to significantly increase connection to nature when compared to simply walking in nature – showing simple exposure isn’t enough.
Connection with nature
Over the last 15 years, nature connection has become a recognised and measurable psychological construct – one that describes an individual’s sense of their relationship with the natural world. That is our emotional attachment and beliefs about our inclusion within nature. These aspects affect our being – how we experience the world, our emotional response, our attitudes and behaviour towards nature.
Nature connection is an important factor in positive mental health and wellbeing. It acts as a mediator for wellbeing outcomes associated with exposure to nature. In fact, the wellbeing benefits of nature have been reported as being as important as established factors such as income and education. Evidence also points to nature connection being linked to the development of pro-environmental and pro-conservation behaviours.
However, we humans have created a culture that divides us from the nature that keeps us well. At a time when there is an urgent need to address health inequalities and support a more sustainable approach to the environment, there is a real need to understand the science of our connection with nature and identify how research and practice can support and inform decision makers going forward. Michael Gove is correct to say our emotional connection with nature matters – it can help keep us, and our environment well. However, there is a science of connection, beauty, emotion, meaning and compassion that can inform environmental policy – after all people are at the root of the declining state of nature.
Kamitsis, I., & Francis, A. J. (2013). Spirituality mediates the relationship between engagement with nature and psychological wellbeing. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 136-143.
Howell, A. J., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2013). Meaning in nature: meaning in life as a mediator of the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14(6), 1681-1696.
Zhang, J.W., Howell, R.T., Iyer, R., (2014). Engagement with Natural Beauty Moderates the Positive Relation between Connectedness with Nature and Psychological Well-Being, Journal of Environmental Psychology.
Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Keltner, D. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology.