How does the weather and the season affect our connection with nature?

After a dry spring, we’ve had much more rain recently and I was wondering if weather and time of year affected levels of nature connection. Through the Nature Connection Index we’ve been measuring nature connectedness nationally since 2015. This has been intermittent because it was during the development of the scale and then for a specific project. However, there’s enough MENE data to take a quick look – and this blog presents a quick look rather than a formal analysis. It is real data, but not evenly collected throughout the year in a wide variety of conditions. Data collection continues though, so they’ll be opportunity for that.

Firstly, we pulled out the data for each year. You can see in the table that those completely or strongly agreeing that they ‘feel part of nature’ is around 45%. The higher this level is the more likely it is people will do more for nature. And the more likely they’ll feel well. The mean looks like it may have crept up a few percentage points, a little encouragement. However, we can make a speculative estimate of target levels from other work – those who take action for nature tend to score well over 6. So 5.06 to 5.25 might show a start – or could be related to seasonal/weather variation given the months collected.

Year Month/s Collected n Mean NC % Feeling close to nature
2015 Nov 418 5.06 45.0
2016 Feb/Mar 835 5.07 43.2
2017 May/Aug/Sept/Nov 2758 5.17 44.3
2018 Feb/Mar 844 5.25 46.8

So what happens across the seasons? Given the uneven spread across the months I took a broad summer (May-Sept) to winter (Nov-Mar) approach. This suggests a slightly higher figure for nature connection in the summer (n=1866), 46.4% with high agreement (mean 5.23) compared to 43.6% (mean 5.11) in winter (n=2989). This is a small difference, but mirrors nature connection data gathered on single days by Duffy and Verges (2010) from a student cohort of 220.

Rain can be fun!

So what about the weather? We know weather is a theme that features when people notice the good things in nature. The MENE data is national and collected across a number of days so I used monthly average temperature and total rainfall records for each month. Based on the mean, there was a reasonable positive correlation between temperature and nature connection of 0.4. Using the percentage feeling close to nature this was again 0.4. Duffy and Verges found a figure of 0.4 too! This is interesting as they used an implicit measure of nature connectedness (an IAT), as they were concerned that explicit scales were subject to participant bias and measure stable beliefs that are unaffected by seasonal changes .

Similarly, there was a reasonable negative correlation between rainfall and nature connection of -0.4. Using the percentage feeling close to nature this was disappeared, falling to zero. Duffy and Verges didn’t look at correlation, but did find nature connection was lower when it rained.

I then had a quick look at wellbeing over time. Several wellbeing indicators are quite steady across the seasons, although happiness does show greater seasonal variation – and adding that into the data we find a correlation between happiness and nature connectedness over time of 0.5. That’s something interesting to follow-up. We know from other work that happiness is linked to connection and increases as nature connectedness is improved.

So what does all this mean? Is the link between weather and connection a sign of our latent embeddedness in the environment – we can detect physiological changes from forests & beautiful flowers for example? Duffy and Verges noted that their similar findings supported Emerson’s observation from 1836 that forces of nature affect human psychological functioning, noting the sentence “Not the sun or the summer alone, but every hour and season yields its tribute of delight; for every hour and change corresponds to and authorizes a different state of the mind” (p. 12).

This embeddedness explanation suggests that natural cycles have a negative impact though, there is seasonal variation in wellbeing after all. Emerson might suggest the wet and cold bring a different state of mind – but is it disconnecting? The mind might find it immersive and crisp. If every hour and season yields delight it can bring connection. There’s much to be debated here. Duffy and Verges approach measured preference for natural to built environments – perhaps there’s an evolutionary preference for the warmth of shelter when it’s cold and wet. Does preference for shelter in the winter mean nature connectedness is reduced as nature becomes ‘negative’?

Or is the explanation of the link between weather and connection simply that when it’s colder (when days are also shorter) and wetter we tend to spend more time indoors and less likely to be outside engaging with the good things in nature in ways that we know improves nature connectedness? Frequency of positive engagement nature matters. However, it’s worth remembering that the difference between winter and summer levels was small, around 2.5% – overall nature connectedness appears to be quite stable across the seasons. Larger differences have been generated by encouraging people to notice the good things in nature – in winter and summer.

In sum, there are some trends in the data and it’ll be an interesting question to ask as more data arrives. And it will arrive, from April 2020 this key indicator item from the NCI is included in the new People and Nature Survey – indeed the first monthly report was recently published – so we’ll be able to track what happens over the summer and beyond. Meanwhile, be sure to enjoy the good things in nature, whatever the weather!

 

Duffy, S., & Verges, M. (2010). Forces of nature affect implicit connections with nature. Environment and Behavior, 42(6), 723-739.

Thanks to Dave, and Holli-Anne Passmore for getting the data together.

About Miles

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