Nature is good for us. There’s plenty of evidence that exposure to nature is good for people’s health, well-being and happiness – with green spaces even promoting prosocial behaviours. Less is known about why nature is good for us. Simply put, nature is good for us because we are part of nature. We are human animals evolved to make sense of the natural world and this embeddedness in the natural world can often be forgotten and overlooked.
Mentally, we can become disconnected from nature because we’re now deeply embedded in a human-made world. Emerging research is showing that knowing and feeling this connection with nature is also good for us, and it helps bring about the wider health benefits of exposure to nature. Knowing your place in nature brings meaning and joy.
My research is focussed on understanding and increasing this connection with nature because being connected is associated with greater pro-nature conservation behaviours and our own well-being. Having a connection with nature is beneficial for the well-being of both humans and the natural world.
Our first intervention to improve nature connection was purposefully simple, something all of us can do each and every day, in most things we do. It is simply taking notes of ‘3 Good Things in Nature‘ each day, from noticing the song of a bird to the breeze in a tree. We found writing down three good things in nature each day for a week led to sustained increases in nature connection – and that increase was linked with improvements in psychological health.
We’ve also been involved in larger-scale projects, The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign set out to encourage people to value nature more highly in their own life, with an emphasis on commonplace and accessible nature experiences. Over the last couple of years over 40,000 people have taken part. Our evaluation found that participants had sustained increases in happiness, health, connection to nature and pro-nature behaviours.
This was an excellent outcome, but for me, the key point was that the improvement in health was influenced by the improvement in happiness (which makes sense), but this relationship was mediated by the increase in connection to nature. So spending time in nature helps people feel happier and more connected, and being both happy and connected makes people feel healthier.
As part of my work to find ways to improve our connection to nature, I also do research into understanding what individual differences make us connected. For example, simply reflecting on our nature – self-directed thinking and those reflective thoughts that can improve our self-knowledge. This is a genuine interest about one’s own values and attitudes, and can also involve reflection on the emotions that contribute to our concept of self, one that might include the natural world, which is our connection with nature.
This fits well with my definition of nature connection, ‘a realisation of our shared place in nature, which affects our being – how we experience the world here and now; our emotional response, beliefs and attitudes towards nature’.
Interestingly, in our research self-refection emerged as a greater predictor of connection to nature than mindfulness. By looking inward we can realise a closer connection to nature. From an applied perspective, we should find ways to promote self-reflection, places to pause in nature, and ways to prompt reflection.
Finally, there is plenty of evidence that nature is good for us, but how does being in nature impact on our emotions, body and well-being? To explain the benefits of nature we need to understand our emotions and their underlying physiology. Our latest work presents three dimensions of emotion and supporting evidence to show how nature regulates emotions and the heart.
The three dimensions are that humans can experience threat, drive and contentment. Each dimension brings different feelings (such as anxiety, joy, and calm), and different motivations (avoid, pursue and rest), each releasing various hormones in the body.
For well-being, we need a balance between the three dimensions; happiness and satisfaction comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. For example, when our threat response is overactive, an unbalance caused by being constantly driven at work, for example, our positive emotions are reduced, and we can become anxious or depressed.
We re-analysed previous Japanese shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) studies that had compared how the body reacts to being immersed in nature (woodland), to being in an urban environment. The results of the analysis supported the story told above. Finding that being in the woods was calming, activating the parasympathetic nervous system associated with contentment. Whereas the urban environment stimulated the sympathetic nervous system associated with drive and threat.
Threat, drive and contentment, and their links to our mind and bodies, are easily understood in the context of our everyday lives, providing an accessible physiological based narrative to help explain the benefits of nature.
Such a neurophysiological and evolutionary explanation provides a compelling argument to convince others of the role of, and need for, nature in our everyday lives. With interventions such as ‘3 Good Things in Nature’ and ’30 Days Wild’ providing simple ways to help engage people with nature each day, through both celebrating and reflecting on nature. All because doing so is good for nature, and good for you.
Dr Miles Richardson is a chartered psychologist and chartered ergonomist.