How does human connection with nature influence our health and wellbeing? In what ways does an individual’s psychological relationship to their environment shape their conservation attitudes and behaviours? A 2023 systematic review published in Biological Conservation seeks to answer these questions.
The review, titled “Psychological and Physical Connections With Nature Improve Both Human Well-Being and Nature Conservation”, covers 16 pertinent meta-analyses on these topics. This breadth allowed the authors to examine results from 832 independent studies. Thus, their summary is likely the most comprehensive one to date, focussing on the links between nature connectedness, human wellbeing, and environmental preservation.
However, the research has some limitations. It is worth noting that the 832 studies were overwhelmingly carried out among North American (42%), European (28%), and Asian (25%) populations. Oceania and South America made up just 3% of studies, and there were none in Africa. Moreover, 80% of respondents were adults.
Physical and Psychological Connection With Nature and Human Wellbeing
As explained in the Biological Conservation article, “physical connection” is taken to mean physical contact with nature (aka nature contact). On the other hand, “psychological connection” is a little different, referring to “the extent to which people see themselves as part of nature.” It is also frequently deemed “human–nature connectedness” (HNC).
The systemic review illustrates that, perhaps as expected, nature contact enhances people’s health and wellbeing. The 832 studies included diverse physical connections such as mindfulness-based nature interventions, outdoor activities, natural sounds, and gardening. For those interested in bettering their health, the article mentions that the greatest subjective wellbeing was achieved via “natural sounds with a higher species richness” and nature-based mindfulness.
Maybe the fact that nature contact improves human wellness is unsurprising. We all know the physical health advantages of exercise, fresh air, and sunlight. And time spent in green and blue spaces has long been shown to improve mental health, for example, by lowering stress and negative emotions and boosting mood and cognition. These understandings underlie nature therapy, aka eco-therapy. Importantly, positive nature connectedness/relatedness – one’s subjective sense of relationship with the natural environment – is associated with wellbeing in the hedonic (pleasure) and eudaimonic (meaning) realms.
But why else is physically experiencing nature important? Because doing so strengthens an individual’s psychological link to the environment. According to the authors’ aforementioned definition of psychological connection, this means people are more likely to view themselves as part of the wider natural whole.
Relatedly, over the last 60 years or so, industrialised, Westernised societies have seen several paradigm shifts (and overlaps) in perceptions and attitudes underpinning conservation efforts.
The 2014 piece “Whose conservation?” by Georgina Mace discusses these four frameworks:
- Nature for itself (1960s to present): protecting nature from people.
- Nature despite people (1980s to present): restoring environments degraded and destroyed by humans.
- Nature for people (2000 to present): emphasising nature’s crucial role for people.
- People and nature (2010s to present): focussing on the reciprocally beneficial relations between humans and other life.
Whether the latest development is ecocentric/biospheric (valuing nature for its own sake) or anthropocentric (valuing nature for the benefits it provides humans) is up for debate. In either case, it probably doesn’t matter as much. It could be argued that, “since ecosystems constitute the ‘life-support system’ for humans, anthropocentrism can and should be a powerful motivation for environmental protection.” Even if an individual’s worldview is anthropocentric rather than ecocentric, it is still in their best interests to conserve their habitat.
Experience of Nature (EoN) and Pro-Environmental Behaviours and Attitudes
Additional benefits complement the health advantages people derive from nature contact. An important one, as highlighted in the 2023 review, is that a person’s psychological perception that they are part of nature leads to pro-conservation beliefs and actions. Nature connection has been found to be “strongly and robustly” related to pro-environmental behaviour, including observed behaviour, self-reports, and behavioural intentions. For instance, nature relatedness is positively correlated with conservation volunteering.
Further, this 2022 piece on human “experience of nature” (EoN) illustrates that these experiences affect “human values and attitudes by reinforcing individuals’ psychological and emotional connection with nature.” Those with the highest EoN levels tend to demonstrate the greatest pro-conservation behaviours while having stronger environmental identities.
Unfortunately, research also suggests that human EoN has been declining globally. There is even a term for the phenomenon: The “extinction of experience”. Lowered EoN is probably caused by loss of opportunity – evidenced by mass urbanisation, reduced greenery in metro areas, and deforestation – combined with loss of orientation, meaning people’s decreased desire to engage with nature and their subsequent loss of emotional affinity with it.
Suggestions from the systemic review to combat these trends include:
- Greening urban areas and schools
- Increased biodiversity (in particular, acoustic biodiversity and landscape wilderness)
- Nature-based mindfulness
Overall, understanding and acting on these links – between nature contact, psychological connection to the environment, and pro-conservation attitudes and behaviours – will help societies attain their sustainability targets. The wellbeing, societal, and ecological advantages of nature relatedness have already attracted much interest in the research literature across multiple disciplines and in the public policy arena.
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