Our latest research with 4,960 adults across England has found that nature connectedness is important, over and above getting out into nature, for eudaemonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. The work is a key paper from a five-year project co-ordinated by Natural England, supported by several national nature conservation groups and involving a number of universities along the way. The project aimed to establish the contribution of both nature contact and nature connection to wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.
A large amount of evidence has been published showing time in, and contact with, nature are important for health and wellbeing and this evidence is now increasingly recognised. However, nature connectedness as a measurable psychological construct that describes how close a person is to nature has emerged more recently, so much less is know about its contribution, especially when entered into the models that study contact with nature.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, investigated the relationships between nature contact (visits and neighbourhood greenspace), nature connectedness (measured using the NCI developed as part of the project), general health, wellbeing, pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours within a single study analysed using linear regression models.
The study collected data from a representative sample of the adult population of England (N = 4,960) collected via the Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment (MENE) survey. As part of the United Kingdom’s official statistics, substantial effort is made to ensure representative sampling.
Check out the full research paper for the analysis, here we can jump straight to a selection of the results.
After accounting for various types of nature exposure and a comprehensive range of socio-demographics (e.g. socio-economic status, neighbourhood deprivation, urbanicity, gender, ethnicity, employment, marital status) we found:
- A positive relationship between nature connectedness and feeling one’s life has meaning and is worthwhile (eudaemonic wellbeing) – nearly 4 times larger than the increase associated with higher socio-economic status.
- A positive relationship between nature connectedness and household pro-environmental behaviours (e.g. recycling, buying locally sourced food, eco-friendly products, walking or cycling).
- A positive relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. supporting nature conservation and volunteering).
Psychological connectedness to nature was found to be important over and above getting out into nature for eudaemonic wellbeing, pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours.
Contact With Nature
For contact with nature we found:
- Visiting nature once per week or more was associated with better household pro-environmental behaviours and general health (to a level substantially higher than socio-economic status) – but not directly to living a worthwhile life or pro-nature conservation behaviours.
- Living in a greener neighbourhood was negatively related to general health and unrelated to any wellbeing or sustainability outcomes – highlighting the difference between presence of and use of greenspace.
These results suggest a need to encourage visits to local green spaces, but for the type of activities related to nature connectedness (e.g. pathways to nature connection) – more on this below.
Indirect contact with nature through watching nature programmes was also included in the analysis, there were some positive results with complex interactions. In brief, individuals who watched nature programmes reported more pro-nature conservation behaviours than those who did not, and this pattern became more marked as nature connectedness increased. This suggests further work around designing nature programming around the pathways to nature connection to intentionally increase nature connectedness could be worthwhile. However, for highly connected individuals watching nature programming was related to reduced life satisfaction, perhaps related to heightened concern about the decline of nature now increasingly referenced in nature programmes. This highlights the need for efforts to increase nature connectedness (for human and nature’s wellbeing) to be accompanied by positive news on the restoration of nature.
The analysis also considered how the main factors worked together.
Nature connectedness was found to be a key factor, not just in terms of a direct relationship with wellbeing and pro-nature behaviour, but also through interaction effects on indirect and intentional nature contact. For instance, living a worthwhile life, nature connectedness and frequency of visits to nature interacted. This suggests optimal visits may be those that activate nature connectedness – once again through the type of activities suggested by the pathways to nature connection.
The study also provided some interesting results on pro-nature behaviours.
Firstly, the analysis showed that pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours are distinct factors – that is they form two types of human behaviours that need to be thought of differently. However, although there are many validated scales of pro-environmental behaviours, there are none for pro-nature conservation behaviours (the good news is we’ve developed one at the University of Derby).
The study found that household pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling, were far more frequent in our sample than pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. nature conservation volunteering) that are likely to require greater commitment and effort – and, as another paper from the project reports, are associated with higher levels of nature connectedness.
It is important to note that while the direct relationships between nature connectedness were stronger for household than conservation behaviours, the interaction effects were stronger for conservation than household behaviours. This suggests that efforts to improve nature connectedness may be particularly important for conservation behaviours that arguably require greater personal effort.
It is important to note that the link between nature connectedness and both living a more worthwhile life and pro-nature behaviours remained after accounting for various types of nature exposure and a comprehensive range of socio-demographics. Also, it should be noted that causality cannot be established form this type of research, however evidence of a causal relationship between nature connectedness and key outcomes has been found in other research, for example to improved pro-environmental behaviours and greater wellbeing.
The current study has though identified that the role of nature connectedness is important over and above getting out into nature for the two important outcomes of eudaimonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. These effects are practically meaningful, given that they were greater in magnitude to benchmark socio-demographic factors.
Nature connectedness is a key target to foster a worthwhile and sustainable life.
Theory and research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors in human-nature interactions and the results suggest that a more nuanced approach to human-nature interactions is necessary. This has implications for policies related to improving both human and planetary health.
The interaction effects show that nature connectedness influences the way in which people respond to contact with nature. This suggests that interventions are needed that increase both contact with, and connection to nature, in order to achieve human and nature’s wellbeing.
The results are particularly relevant to practitioners and policy makers because of the nationally representative nature of the sample and diverse types of nature contact respondents had. The concept of a worthwhile life also links through to the idea of a “good life”. A key transformative change stated in the IPBES assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems (Section D3: Summary for policy makers) was to re-evaluate what we mean by the idea of a “good life” – improving nature connectedness provides a target to help establish a worthwhile life, a pro-nature life – a good life.
In sum, the psychological construct of nature connectedness, which describes the closeness of our emotional relationship with nature, was a key factor. Firstly, in terms of its direct relationship with having a worthwhile life, pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours. Secondly, through its moderating effect on nature contact – reporting a meaningful and worthwhile life (eudaimonic wellbeing), nature visit frequency and nature connectedness interacted, suggesting optimal visits may be those that activate the pathways to nature connectedness – which has implications for the types of activity encouraged in greenspaces.
The results support the value of collecting population levels of nature connectedness (as we did with the NCI) and encouraging interventions that increase it among the population. There is a clear need to move beyond facilitating access to nature to consider access for connection with nature. The pathways to nature connectedness (PDF pathways postcard) provide a design framework for interventions intended to facilitate the right type of nature engagement for connection.
Encouragingly we know nature connectedness can be increased through simple interventions such as noticing the good things in nature and campaigns such as 30 Days Wild. However, the warming climate and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken. The population data shows that levels of nature connectedness need to be significantly higher for the majority of the population to bring about the behaviours required for a sustainable future. A new, closer and sustainable relationship with nature will require systemic change at deep leverage points. We’re already working on ways to apply the pathways to nature connectedness at deep leverage points and will publish proposals in the coming months. For now, the research above provides an essential first step, identifying the key role of nature connectedness, highlighting a missing link in human and nature’s wellbeing.
Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101389.