Nature connectedness and noticing nature: Key components of a good life.

For the past six months or so we’ve been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected with nature relates to pro-nature behaviours and wellbeing. In particular we were interested to see how much everyday moments, simply tuning into notice nature, mattered. The full report has been published as part of the National Trust’s 125thAnniversary activities.

One of our successful interventions to improve nature connectedness for wellbeing involves simply noticing the good things in nature. We know a close connection with nature comes from tuning into nature.  What does that mean?  It’s simple. We tune into nature when we engage in simple activities – like listening to birdsong or enjoying the early spring blooms.  Simple moments of tuning into nature are not only an observable indicator of the psychological construct of nature connectedness, they also manifest the psychological construct of nature connectedness.  They bring nature connectedness to life, and are how looking, listening, enjoying nature and its beauty can bring care for nature into your life, as well as happiness and meaning.

A YouGov survey of 2096 adults was used to explore how the factors below related to pro-nature conservation behaviours and wellbeing:

  • Nature connectedness
  • Time spent in nature
  • Simple engagement with nature (e.g. listening to birdsong & smelling wildflowers)
  • Indirect engagement with nature (e.g. watching or listening to nature programmes)
  • Knowledge and study of nature
  • Valuing and concern for nature
  • Pro-nature environmental action (i.e. cutting carbon and resource use – rather than creating habitat for wildlife)

Some of these factors worked together to explain 70% of the variation in people’s pro-nature conservation behaviours. Of the factors above, simple engagement through tuning in and noticing nature had the strongest relationship to conservation action.

In particular, we identified seven significant ‘noticing nature’ activities that are significantly linked to nature conservation behaviours. These help describe someone with a close and caring relationship with nature—someone who tunes in to the everyday nature around them:

  • Listening to bird song
  • Smelling wild flowers
  • Taking a photos / drawing or painting pictures of nature
  • Taking time to notice butterflies and/or bees
  • Watching the sun rise
  • Watching clouds
  • Watching wildlife

Unfortunately, although 80% of people in the survey expressed concern about the state of nature, far fewer actively help its recovery – for example only 29% said they’d created a home for wildlife in the past year. However, using our newly validated Pro-nature Conservation Behaviour Scale, we found that those people with a high level of nature connectedness, or a close relationship with nature, did much more– 40-50% more – than those with a weaker relationship. Nature connectedness was  a key factor in conservation action.

We also found that it’s about moments—not about minutes.  Spending time in nature was unrelated to nature conservation action. Care for nature is about being tuned in and having a close relationship, rather than simply being outdoors. An interest in nature shown through watching nature programmes and the study of nature (indirect engagement) also helped explain levels of nature conservation behaviours – although to a lower level than simple direct engagement with nature.  Similarly, pro-environmental behaviours (e.g. recycling) and concern for nature were linked to nature conservation activities. In reality all these factors work together, but even then, nature connectedness and simple nature engagement were involved in over 90% of that shared variation in pro-nature conservation behaviours. Tuning into nature and developing a close relationship with nature matters – a lot.

The representative survey of people also looked at the relationship between nature connectedness, nature experiences, and wellbeing.  In particular we looked at two aspects of well-being:  happiness and feeling that life is worthwhile (an indicator that people find meaning in life).  Once again, factors included in the analysis were:  nature connectedness, time spent in nature, engaging with nature through simple activities, indirect engagement with nature, and knowledge and study of nature.  We also looked at how these factors were related to ill-being (i.e., depression and anxiety).  We found that:

  • Nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities emerged as important contributors to being happy and feeling that life is worthwhile.
  • Importantly, time in nature did not emerge as a significant predictor of happiness or feeling that life is worthwhile. Indeed, time as a non-factor repeats results of our other work published recently.

The survey also looked at two well-known factors that are important contributors to happiness and a worthwhile life:  having a life-partner and believing that one can control their life. Even when we considered these basic components of a good life, nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities still emerged as significant important aspects of life contributing to happiness and feeling that life is worthwhile.  This suggests that nature connectedness itself—tuning into nature—is a basic component of a good life.

With regard to ill-being (i.e., depression and anxiety):

  • Nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities were significantly predictive of not having anxiety and depression.
  • Again, even when we considered the basic components of a good life (being in a loving relationship and believing that one has control over their life), nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities still emerged as significant important aspects of a good life, predictive of not having anxiety or depression. In essence, tuning nature in, helps to tune anxiety and depression out.
  • Importantly, time in nature did not emerge as a significant predictor of not having anxiety or depression.

These findings of time as a non-factor may seem odd.  There’s been a great deal of research showing how time in nature is important for wellbeing. However, this research often overlooked individual factors, such as nature connection and engagement. When added to the analysis these person-based factors have stronger relationships. So, when measured alone, time in nature will be a proxy for connection and engagement, but time does not tell the full story. What matters is how that time is spent – developing and being in a close relationship with nature.

Tuning in and noticing nature matters for human and nature’s wellbeing. Yet it appears that most people are tuned out. Indeed, as a society, we are out of tune with the rest of nature. Sadly, around 80% of people reported that they rarely or never watched wildlife, smelled wild flowers or drew/photographed nature. 62% of people rarely or never listened to bird song or took a moment to notice butterflies or bees. Just 6% celebrate natural events such as the longest day. In other research we’ve found that when people are prompted to notice the good things in nature, their nature connectedness and mental health improves. This provides evidence of the causal link between noticing nature, connection, and wellbeing.

Think of it this way: When a musician or an instrument is out of tune with the rest of the orchestra, the result is disharmony, discordance, and disunity—an altogether unpleasant experience.  So too when we are out of tune with the rest of nature.  When we are tuned out and fail to notice the nature around us, we also fail to notice the discordance and dishevel that our environment is in.  If we don’t take notice—we are unlikely to take action.  Moreover, by not being tuned into nature, our lives are poorer for it in terms of happiness and meaning.  Yet, as these findings show, tuning into nature—through simple acts like listening to the birds or enjoying the beauty of flowers—changes our actions to care more for nature.  Tuning into nature adds happiness and meaning to our daily lives.  Tuning in to nature is not about time, not about minutes. It’s simply about noticing the nature around you, about engaging with nature and cultivating a close, connected relationship with the rest of the natural world.

Overall, these findings highlight that time spent in nature is not necessarily a significant predictor of human wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours.  Rather it a close connected relationship with nature that plays an important role in feeling happy, feeling that life is worthwhile, and doing good for nature. This is important as a focus on time brings a focus on access to nature, when what matters more is access that promotes engagement – providing green and blue places that facilitate and prompt simple engagement with nature – on an everyday basis. This can be done through applying our pathways to nature connection design framework, as used by the National Trust, and extended frameworks published recently in the journals Landscape and Urban Planning and Urban Forestry and Urban Greening.

The warming climate and loss of wildlife show our relationship with nature is broken, these results show that too often nature is not part of people’s daily lives – from simply noticing it to celebrating the cycles of nature. We need a new relationship with nature and that starts by tuning in and noticing nature and its beauty. Letting nature manage our emotions. Celebrating its presence and story through cultural events. These are key components of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life – a good life.

 

A blog by Prof. Miles Richardson and Dr Holli-Anne Passmore.

About Miles

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