Why does a connection with (the rest of) nature improve well-being?

Children exploring urban nature (Emma Bradshaw)

Nature is good for our well-being. As well as having nature nearby, we know that the relationship between people and nature, our nature connectedness, is important. Recent evidence suggests that connection with nature is more important for mental well-being than simple exposure. However, we don’t yet fully understand how this connection works. The Wildlife Trust’s 30 Days Wild campaign starts to tell that story.

We set out to explore the relationship between beauty, emotion regulation, nature connectedness and well-being. Using participants from The Wildlife Trusts successful 30 Days Wild campaign over the past three years, we found that doing something wild every day for 30 days led to sustained benefits to well-being. Participants took part in a voluntary ‘Wildness Quiz’ and we analysed their results at three time points – before the campaign, just after, and again two months later. In the third year of the study, we also looked at how strongly people responded to nature’s beauty. In a separate, but related, study, we measured people’s ability to regulate their emotions, for example how easy or difficult they found it to regain control after becoming upset. By combining the research from both studies, it has allowed us to answer two questions:

  • Is the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being linked to emotional regulation?
  • Does noticing nature’s beauty aid the relationship between nature connectedness and well-being?

Emotional Regulation

Being connected with nature is about feeling close to the wider natural world. A relationship that helps us feel good – that taps into our emotions. Emotions aren’t just feelings, they are linked to our bodies. Our nervous system, heart and brain. As different emotions come and go, they shape what we do – they motivate us. Regulating emotions is a very important and almost constant function of human life. Our ability to keep our emotions regulated is important for well-being.

Japanese research into forest bathing has provided valuable insights into our emotional regulation, helping us to identify three dimensions in our emotional regulation – drive, calm and threat. Each day we experience these three emotions in different ways, and each has different associated feelings: joy, contentment, anxiety. Each of these, in turn, brings with it different motivations, such as pursuit (joy), rest (calm), and avoidance (threat). This is called the ‘three-circle model’.

For well-being, we need a balance between the three dimensions. Feeling good and functioning well comes through balancing threat, drive and contentment. Sometimes theses emotions become unbalanced, for example if we’re constantly driven and pressured to do well at work or school, with little time for calm, rest and fun. This can reduce our positive emotions and our threat response can become overactive. We can become anxious when simply receiving an email. Nature connectedness might bring about well-being by helping regulate these three emotions.

Nature’s Beauty

The second way that nature connectedness could help with well-being is found in the beauty of nature. Research shows that appreciating nature’s beauty is key to developing greater connectedness to nature. People who have a deeper response when viewing beauty in nature have better well-being. This, in turn, promotes a stronger connection with nature.

Our senses evolved simply to make sense of the natural world. As we’ve evolved and lived within nature, the sights and sounds of the natural world flow in to us through our senses. The beauty of nature brings pleasure without being ‘useful’ and is key to our relationship with nature. The beauty of nature, like emotion, is at the core of nature connectedness.

By looking at people’s answers to the Wildness Quiz before and after 30 Days Wild, we proved that including nature in every day life for a month led to sustained improvements in nature connectedness, well-being and conservation behaviours. People taking part also noticed nature’s beauty more deeply. This helped promote nature connectedness and to improve well-being.

Beauty, emotional regulation and connection to nature

Finally, we looked at the relationship between nature connectedness, emotional regulation and well-being. This showed that those who had difficulty regulating their emotions had a lower connection with nature, and lower happiness. Further analysis revealed (for the first time) that emotional regulation helped link together nature connectedness and happiness. Finally, the three-circle model suggests that appreciating the beauty of nature can calm our more driven emotions, bringing contentment and emotional balance.

So, noticing nature’s beauty and emotional regulation play a part in this complex relationship. Yet, noticing nature’s beauty and emotional regulation aren’t related to each other. They worked independently. Therefore, we can conclude that nature connectedness can bring about well-being both ways: through aiding emotional regulation, and through tuning into nature’s beauty.

The research shows that well-being in nature is not just about visiting nature when feeling run-down. To access the wider benefits of nature connectedness, there is always a need to feel close to nature and be tuned into its beauty. We evolved to make sense of nature, so let the sights and sounds of nature’s beauty flow in through all of your senses.

You can read the full article here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01500/full