Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship

A great deal of valuable research has shown that being out in nature is beneficial for human wellbeing. Much of this work uses time and visits to nature as a key measure – they are both straightforward to record. However, this research has largely overlooked the relevance of person specific factors such as nature connectedness – put simply a love of nature. Also, few studies have considered the various ways people engage with nature in concert to establish which types of activity relate best to well-being.

We have been working with the National Trust exploring how being connected and engaging with nature in simple ways relates to pro-nature behaviours and wellbeing. Our paper on pro-nature behaviours was published last year in People and Nature. The second paper on wellbeing has now been published open access in the International Journal of Wellbeing. This blog provides a summary of quite a long and involved research paper.

In sum, we found that a close relationship with nature and simple moments with nature really matter for wellbeing – so much so that the impact of spending time in nature was not significant. Building on our work on ‘noticing nature‘ you can see the impact of such findings in today’s launch of #BlossomWatch by the National Trust.

Noticing blossom matters for wellbeing

The Research

Let’s look at latest research paper in more detail. We looked at data from a nationally representative YouGov survey of 2096 adults to explore how the factors below related to hedonic wellbeing (i.e., happiness), eudaimonic wellbeing (i.e., worthwhile life), illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety), and general physical health:

  1. nature connectedness,
  2. time in nature (days a week spending more than an hour in nature),
  3. engagement with nature through simple everyday activities,
  4. indirect engagement with nature (e.g. nature TV and books),
  5. knowledge and study of nature.

Our primary focus was on examining, when considered simultaneously, the relative importance of these five nature-engagement approaches.

Full details of the complex statistical analysis are provided in the paper, but a consistent pattern of results emerged across multiple analytical approaches (i.e., correlations, linear regression, dominance analyses, commonality analysis). We found that time in nature was not the main (or significant) predictor of wellbeing – nor were indirect contact with nature or knowledge/study of nature.  Rather, nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities (e.g. smelling wildflowers) consistently emerged as being the significant and prominent factors in explaining mental health and wellbeing.

Even when we considered two basic components of a good life, the basic psychological needs of autonomy (i.e., a sense of control over one’s life) and relatedness (via relationship status), nature connectedness and engaging with nature through simple activities still emerged as being significantly related to happiness, feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower rates of illbeing.

Although there are many complex factors involved in wellbeing, these results support suggestions that nature connectedness itself—tuning into nature—is a core psychological need and basic component of wellbeing.

The finding that spending time in nature is a lesser-factor may seem odd.  After all, solid research has demonstrated that time in nature is important for wellbeing. However,  as noted above, this research has generally not included individual factors of nature connection and engagement.  Findings from the current study suggest that when added to the equation, these person-based factors have stronger relationships with wellbeing than does time in nature. Previous research using time alone is likely to be measuring a close connection with nature and various forms of nature engagement – but not as well as using specific measures of connection and engagement.

Or put another way, imagine if dietary research had focussed on time spent eating and visits to the fridge. Dietary advice would focus on those. Of some use, but it’s what you do in nature, or what you eat, that really matters. Measuring fat content, calories and exercise means time eating would drop from significance. Recommendations are based on what is measured.

There are many different ways to spend time in nature and different types of engagement with nature. Not all are related to wellbeing.

Being connected and engaging with nature generally involves spending time in nature, yet time in nature may not involve active engagement with nature.  Time does not tell the full story.  What matters is how that time is spent—developing and being in a close relationship with nature.

Does amount of time spent together provide an accurate indication of the closeness of a relationship?

The ‘dominance analysis’ showed that nature connectedness completely dominated all the other nature-related factors in predicting a worthwhile life and lower levels of illbeing, and engaging in simple nature activities was ranked as second.  For happiness, engaging with nature through simple activities completely dominated all other nature-related factors, with nature connectedness being ranked second.  It is important to note that “complete dominance does not typically occur in real data” (Kraha et al., 2012, p. 4).  This speaks to the powerful impact that nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities has on our mental health and wellbeing.

This prominence of nature connectedness and engaging in simple nature activities in accounting for the variance in mental health and wellbeing was also evident in the results of the commonality analyses.  Nature connectedness and engagement with nature through simple activities each uniquely accounted for far more of the explained variance in happiness (17%, 20%), a worthwhile life (25, 15%), and lower wellbeing (31%, 15%), than did time in nature.  Indeed, time in nature uniquely accounted for only 1% of the explained variance in each of happiness, a worthwhile life, and lower illbeing.

Time in nature is a better indicator of levels of physical activity – it often involves walking, cycling etc. So, when looking at general physical health, it was time in nature and nature connectedness that emerged as significant predictors of general physical health. These findings remained significant even when considering control over one’s life and relationship status.  The dominance analysis revealed a tie for first ranking between nature connectedness and time in nature. Previously we’ve found that visits to nature, rather than nature connectedness, was linked to health.

It should be noted that relaxing in the garden and smelling wildflowers were the key significant items in the simple activities group – although correlated to wellbeing outcomes, items such as listening to birdsong or watching wildlife did not emerge as significant individual items in the regression. While smelling wildflowers is a simple engagement activity, relaxing in the garden could include non-nature engagement activities. Hence results could also reflect the benefits of having a garden rather than simple engagement with nature.

That said, the consistent pattern that emerged across correlational, linear regression, dominance, and commonality analyses with respect to nature-related factors and individual wellbeing provides strong support for the notion that time is not the main factor in the nature-wellbeing link.  Rather, the key factor is a close connection with nature. Further, these results mirror, and go further, than the findings in our study on another national daaset published last year. The importance of connection and noticing nature was also confirmed in our recent analysis of a third national dataset. From three national datasets, a clear picture is emerging: that nature connectedness and noticing nature are key for wellbeing. Time and visits have role, but should not be the focus.

By not being tuned into the nature around us, our lives are poorer in terms of happiness and meaning.  Yet, as these findings suggest, tuning into nature—through simple acts like smelling wildflowers while relaxing in a garden—help to explain differential levels of happiness and meaning in individual’s daily lives.  Tuning in to nature is not about time, not about minutes.  It’s about moments. Feeling connected to nature and engaging in simple activities in nature explains mental wellbeing better than time spent in nature.

The Implications

The results also have important practical implications for nature-based programmes and governmental policies.  Perhaps foremost at a programme and policy level, would be a shift from focusing on getting people to visit and spend time in natural (often more remote) spaces to focusing on how people can tune in and connect with everyday nature through everyday simple activities. This would also help to enhance nature connectedness and thereby wellbeing – of people and nature. Additionally, the results suggest the importance of provision of garden’s for rest and relaxation.

The pathways to nature connectedness can be applied at a wider scale to inform cultural programmes and urban designs to foster and prompt engagement with everyday nature. City planners could invest beyond islands of urban parks to ensuring that nature is brought to all residents, for example, by ensuring that city streets and neighbourhoods have trees and flowers alongside (or at least visible from) walkways and routes to public transport and shopping areas. Long-term planning for urban “greenways” connecting parks, public, transit, schools, and basic-necessity shops would improve the lives of all residents – if they were prompted and understood the value of noticing nature. As we know from previous research, most people do not notice nature.

#BlossomWatch is a great example of a campaign to notice and celebrate nature and it’s meaning in our lives. The National Trust is inviting people wherever they live to emulate Japan’s Hanami– the ancient tradition of viewing and celebrating blossom – the Trust is now making it an annual tradition, asking people to share the joy and hope that the sight of blush-tinted blooms will bring to help lift spirits and enable everyone to celebrate nature together. 

The findings also have relevance to mental health practitioners.  That nature connectedness predicted greater happiness, greater levels of feeling that life is worthwhile, and lower prevalence of illbeing (i.e., depression and anxiety) beyond feeling one has control over their life and relationship status, indicates that nature connectedness measures may be a valuable tool when assessing clients’ wellbeing.  Simple, pathways-informed, nature activities could be prescribed to clients – indeed we’ve found that noticing the good things in nature brings clinically significant improvements in mental health.

Finally, national policies aimed at raising levels of nature connectedness, and tracking this growth, are required as an expansion to current policies which, in general, are often geared towards measuring time in or visits to nature. We join Lambert and colleagues (2020) in their call for nature connectedness to be included as a standard metric of wellbeing; we also expand this call to national and civic governmental bodies.

The results confirm an emerging and important finding: that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from spending time in nature. We need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing. There’s a need for greater public understanding that a close connection with nature is a key component of a worthwhile life, a sustainable life—a good life.

 

Richardson, M., Passmore, H. A., Lumber, R., Thomas, R., & Hunt, A. (2021). Moments, not minutes: The nature-wellbeing relationship. International Journal of Wellbeing, 11 (1).
https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v11i1.1267

 

About Miles

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