How could feeling connected to nature make us happy?

care-in-nature

Blog by Anne Cleary, Griffith University

People are starting to get excited about nature connection, and potentially with good reason. In its broadest sense, nature connection describes the mix of feelings, beliefs and behaviours that we have towards nature. Research suggests that high levels of nature connection are likely to play an important role in promoting psychological wellbeing; with growing trends in mental illness, this makes nature connection very exciting indeed. This enthusiasm is reflected in the plethora of initiatives emerging with the aim of connecting people to nature, such as Project Wild Thing, 30 Days Wild, Mood Walks and Nature Play.

Given that most people live in urban environments, we need to think about how best to enhance nature connection among urban residents. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Nature connection is complex, influenced by an individual’s priorities, perceptions, preferences, socio-cultural background, as well as past and current experiences. It is therefore not possible to design or prescribe a ‘one-size-fits-all’ intervention that will effectively increase nature connection and associated wellbeing outcomes among diverse urban residents. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so little is known about the mechanisms through which nature connection enhances psychological wellbeing. In a recent paper, we sought to address this conundrum by exploring the evidence and proposing two potential nature connection mechanisms.

Helping us to feel connected with the world

Nature connection may promote wellbeing through satisfying what is thought to be a fundamental psychological need; that of relatedness. Relatedness refers to the basic and innate need for all humans to relate and connect to others or to the world around them. While relatedness needs are often satisfied through interactions with other people, there are also potential forms of non-human relatedness. Nature connection could be an example of this non-human relatedness. For example, one study found that even after controlling for connections that could satisfy relatedness (e.g. family or culture) nature connection still significantly predicted happiness.

Helping us to care for the world

Nature connection may also promote wellbeing by catalysing intrinsic rather than extrinsic aspirations. Whilst extrinsic aspirations relate to externally valued goods sought out in the pursuit of positive regard or rewards from others (e.g. money, image, status and fame), intrinsic aspirations involve the pursuit of goals concerning personal growth, intimacy and community. Unlike extrinsic aspirations (which have been linked to depression and anxiety), intrinsic aspirations have been associated with greater psychological wellbeing. Nature connection is positively associated with a variety of intrinsic aspirations, including humanitarianism, kindness, empathic concern and altruistic concern, and has also been linked to behaviours that are indicative of intrinsic aspiration. These include, for example, less selfish consumer decision making and pro-environmental decision making. By increasing nature connection, it is plausible that intrinsic aspirations could be promoted, thereby potentially enhancing psychological wellbeing.

Cultivating nature connection

Understanding mechanisms will help to unravel the intricacies involved in designing and delivering effective nature connection interventions for diverse urban populations. For example, if non-human relatedness is a relevant mechanism, then delivering urban nature spaces that actively promote people’s sense of connection with nature through facilitating meaningful nature experiences may promote the feeling of non-human relatedness, hence satisfying this basic psychological need. Similarly, should intrinsic value orientation be an active ingredient, then providing urban nature spaces that enable urban residents to contribute and ‘give back’ to the community may be a way to promote nature connection. Gaining such insights will help move the application of nature and health research beyond ‘one-size-fits-all’ and ‘more-is-better’ type interventions towards more tailored, targeted and effective solutions.

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