Over the past couple of weeks a growing number of people on Twitter haven sharing their ‘3 good things in nature’ under the #3naturethings hashtag. This was kick-started by Issy Bryony Hardman @issybryonyh after we chatted the week before Christmas. In this blog I’ll share a little more of the story the 3 Good Things in Nature intervention, including the unpublished (yet revealing) comparisons to the original positive psychology intervention, 3 Good Things. After a slow start, there’s been a flurry of evidence in 2018 to show that noting the good things in nature each day improves nature connectedness and wellbeing – in children, in clinical and wider populations. That research is currently being written up or under review, but i’ve blogged about this before (in 2016, 2017 & 2018)
Back in 2013 I developed the 3 Good Things in Nature approach as an intervention to improve nature connectedness. The evidence for the benefits from a close connection to the (rest of) nature wasn’t as strong as it is now, but from my personal reconnection through writing about nature I was convinced it would be important to develop the first interventions to improve nature connectedness. We conducted the research in 2013 and submitted it for publication in January 2014. The reviewers were favourable, “I very much like what these researchers are doing”, but they rightly suggested more data was needed. So we collected more data, resubmitted the research paper and by November 2014 the reviewers were again favourable, “This new data greatly improves the argument for proof of concept”. Unfortunately, the editor of the journal didn’t think the research would be of interest to the readers and we found that several other journals weren’t interested in the concept either. Ultimately, we found a home for the research in 2016, and it was published in 2017 and is available here.
I tell this story as it demonstrates the wider lack of interest in nature-based solutions for well-being. However, to ease publication, we did have to remove one part of the study, the comparisons to the original positive psychology intervention, 3 Good Things. Times are changing though and some people have greater vision – the good things in nature approach was central to the £1.3m NERC funded Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project which started in 2016. In that project we developed a smartphone app that prompted users to notice the good things in nature when they passed by a green space.
Now for a little background on Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs). It has been hypothesised that we are programmed to be on the alert for threats or negative events to protect ourselves, so positive emotions are not always at the forefront of our minds. There is a breadth of research highlighting the link between negative emotions and ill health. Other research suggests that positive emotions act independently from negative emotions on health and people with positive beliefs and emotions have been shown to be more likely to lead healthy lives. PPIs aim to increase positive affect and well-being.
Brief PPIs have been associated with increases in well-being and the PPI we adapted was writing three good things a day, usually for a period of a week or two. This intervention has been found to increase happiness and decrease depression. The ability to be aware of positive things has been shown to be a strategy that results in well-being, with writing three good things having significant effects on well-being for up to six months.
Our focus was well-being through positive emotions, but also increasing nature connectedness, so we simply added ‘in nature’ to the intervention. In order to test the outcomes of using the three good things in nature intervention an experimental group was compared to a control group directed to write three factual statements each day for five days – these results have been published. However, a third group completed the existing three good things PPI to check that it didn’t improve connectedness to nature. Nature connection and well-being measures were undertaken at baseline, end of task (one week) and two months after completion.
As expected noting 3 Good Things did not improve nature connectedness – sadly without specific instruction people don’t generally notice the good things in nature. The well-being results were interesting though; we expected that people in both the three good things in nature and three good things groups would show improvements in well-being. The good things in nature group showed statistically significant improvements in psychological health, but the original good things group showed a smaller improvement that wasn’t significant. We also measured perceived stress and found a statistically significant 20% increase in perceived stress in the original good things group. No differences were found in the control group. These results are available here.
We then analysed the content of the good things people wrote about. The nature group wrote 272 words per participant on average, with the good group writing 284 words, very similar. A frequency analysis showed that the good things in nature group tended to write more often about the perception (e.g. hearing and seeing) of things. Further thematic analysis (1000 Good Things in Nature published here) has shown that the sentence content was always nature specific, for example, “Listening to the sparrows chattering in the hedge” and “Sun reflecting off the river”.
Although the good group were more likely to write about positive emotions, the content focussed on actions related to themselves, achievements, work and social processes in the past tense. For example, “Stood up for myself at work” and “Provided sound solutions for a client to facilitate access to work”.
Further analysis showed that the good things group wrote more about cognitive processes and quantifiers. Whereas in the nature group the fewer words associated with cognitive mechanisms and quantifiers was associated with improved nature connection. This suggests that the most successful approach to good things in nature is away for counting and cognitive understanding towards open and effortless, mindful attention to the good things in nature. This fits well with our wider pathways to nature connection research.
The analysis of the text provides an insight into why people simply noting three good things report higher levels of stress after taking part. Words related to the self were frequently used. The frequency in the nature things group was less than half that found in the good things group. The good things group also used words associated with work and social relationships. The significant increase in perceived stress could be related to the higher frequency of work related words, with participants potentially revisiting issues occurring during the day (e.g. standing up for themselves at work) while identifying their good things.
So, the message seems clear, turn to nature to build your micro-foundations of well-being, enjoy the everyday things in nature each day as it can deliver sustained increases in nature connectedness and improved well-being. And of course, it’s not just about us, it’s about the rest of nature. An increased connection with nature is associated with greater pro-nature behaviours – after all, ultimately there can be no health without nature.