During the restrictions to control the coronavirus pandemic people have visited and noticed nature more. We were curious to find out how nature benefited the nation’s mental wellbeing during the coronavirus restrictions. The new People and Nature Survey (PANS) developed by Natural England provided some useful data. Building on some of our previous research, the survey also allowed us to compare how longer-term physical and psychological relationship with nature, and shorter-term visits and noticing of nature were associated with wellbeing – and as human and nature’s wellbeing is rarely considered together, pro-nature behaviours. The research has now been published in the Journal of Public Mental Health and available to download here.
PANS asked several thousand members of the public questions about how connected they are to nature, how often they visit natural spaces and how much they notice nature. It found that visits to nature had increased by 40%, noticing nature had increased by 74%. The survey also collected information on pro-nature conservation behaviours and several wellbeing measures: happiness, loneliness, life satisfaction and the sense that one’s life is worthwhile.
First of all, we analysed the extent to which these wellbeing variables and pro-nature conservation behaviours are predicted by people’s long-term relationship with nature: the time spent in nature over the past 12 months and nature connectedness. We found that both more time spent in nature and a greater connection to nature were positively related to several positive outcomes: life satisfaction, happiness, a worthwhile life and pro-nature conservation behaviours – with noticing nature tending to contribute a little more to the outcomes.
We then turned our attention to experiences of nature during the pandemic restrictions. Our analyses revealed that both the number of recent visits to green spaces and increases in noticing nature were associated with increases in life satisfaction, happiness and the sense of one’s life being worthwhile. The more people spent time in and noticed nature during the pandemic, the greater their wellbeing – with noticing nature tending to contribute a little more than visits. Increases in noticing nature, but not visits, were also positively associated with pro-nature conservation behaviours and greater loneliness. So noticing nature makes you lonely!? Nope, as a cross-sectional survey the direction of this relationship is unknown, rather than increased noticing of nature increasing loneliness, the findings could well reflect that as loneliness increases people turn to nature and spend more time noticing it, buffering the effect of reduced social connectedness that has been found in other research.
Finally, we examined all of these variables together so that we could better understand the relationship between wellbeing and the quality of long-term and short-term relationships with nature. Interestingly, recent nature visits didn’t account for any increase in wellbeing over and above that caused by long-term visits. However, recent increases in noticing nature were associated with a greater sense of having a worthwhile life and more pro-nature conservation behaviours.
These results highlight the importance of having a long-term relationship with nature, but also suggest that recent increases in noticing nature can bring psychological benefits regardless of one’s historical relationship with nature. This finding is supported by our previous empirical research that found prompting people to notice nature led to significant improvements in mental health.
Another finding to emphasise is the benefit to pro-nature conservation behaviours. Higher levels of pro-nature behaviours were best explained by higher levels of nature connectedness and noticing nature. This supports our previous work on the Green Care Code.
The results confirm emerging and important findings: (2020 Study & 2021 Study) that connection to and simple engagement with nature bring benefits over and above those derived from simply spending time in nature. As well as spending time in nature, we also need to tune into nature and develop greater nature connectedness if we want to maximise the benefits to our own, and nature’s wellbeing – perhaps even more so during the pandemic.
Richardson, M. & Hamlin, I. (2021) Nature Engagement for Human and Nature’s Wellbeing during the Corona Pandemic. Journal of Public Mental Health. DOI: 10.1108/JPMH-02-2021-0016