Nature Connection and Wellbeing: Feeling Good and Functioning Well

A guest blog by Alison Pritchard – Nature Connectedness Research Group PhD Student

We have all, at times, felt different emotions when we get close to nature. Depending on our circumstances, and the types of places we visit, our relationship with nature can make us feel happy and joyful, contented and thoughtful, or overawed and full of wonder. Or any mixture of these! But how often do we consider the possibility that, as well as making us feel good, nature may also be important for our psychological functioning?

Our latest paper, just published in the Journal of Happiness Studies provides a review of 50 research studies, involving 16,396 people and the links between their connection with nature and two types of happiness – feeling good and functioning well.

Positive emotions are a reflection of what is known as ‘hedonic wellbeing’, which relates to feeling good, the pleasantness of our experiences, and the extent to which our desires are fulfilled.  Also important for our wellbeing is our ability to function well psychologically – which is often referred to as ‘eudaimonic wellbeing’.  Eudaimonic wellbeing includes factors such as autonomy, self-acceptance, meaning and purpose in life, and personal growth.

We know that eudaimonic wellbeing is related to, but distinct from, hedonic wellbeing (eudaimonia and hedonia tend to be associated with different motives, behaviours and experiences), and both types of wellbeing are important: people with high levels of both types of wellbeing are considered to be flourishing.  Understanding how these different types of wellbeing relate to nature connection is important if we are to gain a complete picture of any possible causal mechanisms involved.

Our recent meta-analysis (Pritchard et al 2019) has shown that connection to nature in adults is associated with higher levels of eudaimonic wellbeing. Thus, individuals who are connected to nature are more likely to be flourishing and functioning well psychologically. Although it is not possible to infer causation from the results of a meta-analysis, this finding may help guide us towards possible mechanisms involved.  For example, nature connection may benefit eudaimonic wellbeing because it provides a route through which basic psychological needs – such as autonomy, competence and relatedness – can be met.  In this way the basic psychological need for relatedness could be met by being with nature, which in turn is known to increase feelings of connectedness to nature.

In relation to the need for autonomy, nature could be a route through which individuals are enabled to express their personal distinctiveness, and not feel constrained by external influences such as the values imposed by society.  Ridder’s (2005) concept of a ‘nature-inspired autonomy’ describes the importance of recognising the value of naturalness as a means of gaining a personal sense of freedom and escaping from the dissatisfaction caused by extrinsic influences of society.

Competence needs could be met through learning about natural environments and ecosystems, as well as through enhanced self-knowledge and self-development gained from being connected to nature.  Outdoor learning, outdoor play and wilderness expeditions have all been linked with improved well-being, cognition, personal, social and emotional development, as well as higher achievement and increased motivation to learn

In the meta-analysis, one aspect of eudaimonic wellbeing – personal growth – appeared to have a significantly stronger relationship with nature connectedness than the other types of eudaimonic wellbeing (e.g purpose in life and autonomy).  What are we to make of this finding? If nature connectedness in adults is associated with their personal growth, how much more important could nature connection be for children’s growth and development?  It has been speculated that there may be a window of opportunity in childhood for connecting to nature, similar to the window of opportunity for language development.  If this is the case, the consequences for nature disconnection in childhood could be long-term, and not easily repaired by experiences in adulthood. Kellert (2002) lamented the possibility that we live in “a society so estranged from its natural origins that it has failed to recognise our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development.”

How could we explain a relationship between nature connection and personal growth? Personal growth is concerned with self-realisation and is akin to Maslow’s concept of self-actualisation and self-transcendence. The uplifting experiences we experience in nature do not leave us unchanged: emotions such as awe and wonder, which are often associated with transcendent experiences, could be a key influence in the relationship between nature connection and personal growth. Awe has been defined as ‘an emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that overwhelm current mental structures, yet facilitate attempts as accommodation’ (Shiota et al. 2007, p 944). Thus, the sense of awe felt in nature could lead to an expansion in individuals’ mental structures and frames of reference, as well as an expanded sense of self, and so foster personal growth.

 

Kellert, S. R. (2002). Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive and evaluative development in children. In P. H. Kahn, & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature: Psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigations (pp.117-151). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D., & McEwan, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. Journal of Happiness Studies, 1-23.

Ridder, B. (2005). Reorienting environmentalism to nature-inspired-autonomy. Griffith Journal of the Environment, 1, 1–26.

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 944-963.

About Miles

Applied psychologist researching our connection with nature and ways to improve it. Good for nature, good for you.
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