A Passion for Nature: from Obsession to Harmony

A couple of recent research papers have caught my eye. The first paper looks at outdoor activities, emotions and two types of passion for nature – important as one is associated with a greater connection with nature, the second relates to decreased connection. Clearly, as we look to improve nature connection, knowing the best forms of relationship is key. The second paper is about the rapid increase in nature connection research over recent years.

A common way to engage people with nature is through outdoor activities. Previous research has considered the quality of the experience and a recent paper by Junot and colleagues considers emotions through the broaden-and-build theory – more on that later. The authors propose that the reasons people take part in outdoor activities will impact on the emotions experienced. This is considered within a two-part model of passion.

Passion consists of a love for self-defining activities – the important things we devote time and energy too. Someone with a passion for an activity might define themselves by it, for example as a hiker, rather than someone who hikes. This internalisation process can be divided into harmonious passion where the person has control over the activity and feels good while doing it. Or obsessive passion where individuals feel compelled to engage in an activity, it becomes disproportionality part of their identity and important for their self-esteem. Harmonious passion is associated with positive affect, intrinsic joy, and to flow — the mental state of being fully immersed and completely present – a state conducive to creativity. Obsessive passion is associated with negative affect, sometimes because people are doing the activity when they should be doing something more important, bringing conflict. This idea reminds me of Gregory Bateson’s writing on our conscious purpose which is damaging to the wider ecology as it separates us from it – I wrote about that here – or you can read Bateson’s 1968 lecture on the topic here.

So, emotions arise from these passions and the broaden-and-build theory provides an insight how they can be translated into behaviours, such as pro-environmental behaviours. Positive emotions open outlook and bring less self-centred attitudes which ultimately lead to a greater feeling of interconnectedness with nature. Negative emotions narrow thoughts and actions towards avoiding negative outcomes and self-orientated behaviours, limiting the overlap between self and nature.

In the study people completed measures for passion for outdoor activity, emotions, environmental behaviours and nature connection (with their own measure rather than an existing one). As expected:

  • Harmonious passion was related to positive emotions
  • Obsessive passion was related to negative emotions
  • Positive emotions were related to environmental behaviours – mediated by nature connection

The research shows that passion, or our relationship with an activity, is important part of our relationship with nature. It is suggested that non-competitive activities that stimulate positive emotions are offered. For children, activities should be recreational, allowing the natural world to be discovered at their own pace to encourage the development of harmonious passion.

Discovering a passion for nature.

The paper on the rapid increase in research by Ives and many colleagues, reviewed 475 papers on human-nature connection. In an analysis ending in 2015, 73% were published between 2010 and 2015. Most of the papers (76%) looked at individual relationships, but the form of those relationships varied between cognitive (36%), experiential (22%), emotional (22%), philosophical (14%) and material (7%). The top 5 countries represented were USA (32%), Australia (11%), Canada (9%), UK (6%) and The Netherlands (5%). The most represented disciplines were psychology (29%), social sciences (21%), environmental sciences (15%), tourism (10%), education (10%), planning (7%) and health (6%).

Cluster analysis revealed three groupings of research:

  • HNC as mind, dominated by the use of psychometric scales,  but tended to consider the relationship with nature, rather than specific places.
  • HNC as experience, characterised by observation and qualitative analysis. Describes  people’s experiences of local areas. An example being the study of people’s interactions with nature as part of a citizen science programme.
  • HNC as place, emphasises place attachment and reserve visits. Typically uses quantitative questionnaires to study emotional connections to specific green spaces or landscapes.

Conclusions were that the importance of human-nature connections is increasingly recognised. However, in order to make a positive change to sustainability there is a need to work across these groups, gather insights and pursue new research to build a strong connection between humanity and the biosphere. Those with a passion for nature need to work in harmony to understand and rewild minds in order to bridge the gap between people and nature.


Junot, A., Paquet, Y., & Martin-Krumm, C. (2017). Passion for outdoor activities and environmental behaviors: A look at emotions related to passionate activitiesJournal of Environmental Psychology.

Ives, C. D., Giusti, M., Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Klaniecki, K., Dorninger, C., … & Raymond, C. M. (2017). Human–nature connection: a multidisciplinary reviewCurrent Opinion in Environmental Sustainability26, 106-113.

About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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