Introduction

Contact with nature has long been thought to have positive impacts on well-being. In recent years this effect has been researched systematically. I hope to give you a brief overview of what has been found, discuss the mechanisms that might underpin these effects and talk about how you might use these findings to support your own path to flourishing.

 

What do we mean by “nature”?

Like many issues in Positive Psychology (PP), the first question is how to define what we mean by nature. If you are going to research the impact of something you need to understand what you are actually talking about. This is complicated by the fact that what is considered “natural” may change over time, place and the perspective of the individual.

We know our world is changing and many of our natural ecosystems are being impacted by human infrastructures. Being “in nature” could mean anything from a full-on wilderness experience, exposure to countryside/ forest/ water bodies, being in urban green spaces, through to having a window to look out of, pictures of natural scenes or even virtual reality immersion.

Therefore, research looking at the impact of natural environments on people has tended to use comparative approaches across an urban-natural gradient. In general, the more natural condition involves an area featuring living systems including plants and (non-human) animals and typically tends to be quieter and have a larger field of view than the comparative urban environment (Bratman et al. 2012). Exposure time is also a factor, how can you compare a two-week mountain hiking experience with an hour-long walk in the park once a week for five years? Further, does it matter if you are interacting with the natural environment in some active way or just observing? So the research process is not straightforward but what has it found?

 

The impact of natural environments

There is a general consensus that exposure to natural environments is good for people. Studies have shown that contact with green space is associated with improved cognitive performance, social behaviour, reduced negative and increased positive affect, positive physiological benefits, lower mental ill health and stress and improved creativity. These effects may also be seen in laboratory studies which utilise images of nature rather than physical interaction, although the evidence to date is less clear on virtual reality immersion. In addition, people who report a greater sense of connectedness with nature show higher levels of both hedonic and eudaimonic well-being (Bratman et al. 2012, Fabjanski & Brymer 2017, Frost et al. 2022, Lim et al. 2020, Pritchard et al 2020).

 

How might this work?

How might contact with nature promote well-being? Again it depends exactly how you are defining nature. If we look at this through the lens of the PERMAH model, which describes the key elements found to underpin flourishing, the mechanisms could look something like this:

P: Positive emotions: looking at a beautiful landscape or even a photo could promote positive feelings of joy, interest, awe, amusement, gratitude and many more and encourage savouring and connection with positive memories. These positive emotions engage a broadened mindset which helps us build resources for future resilience and improved well-being. Of course, if you are on the lookout for poisonous snakes or pestered by insects your nature experience might not have the same effect.

E: Engagement: Contact with the natural world may promote quiet time, mindfulness, presence, reflection and perspective. Alternatively, if you are doing something active, like skiing in the mountains you may experience a complete flow state. Again depending on your individual situation, you could experience loneliness and isolation.

R: Relationships: Getting out in nature can be a part of social contact as in talking to neighbours on an allotment, saying hello to others walking their dog or being part of an organised activity group like a hiking club or adventure team building expedition.

M: Meaning: Connectedness to nature can help us become aware that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and facilitate a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives which are associated with greater well-being.

A: Achievement: Being outside is often about doing something goal related, from climbing Everest to raise money for a meaningful charity, to simply cutting the grass to make the garden look better. Achieving things generally makes us feel good (unless we focus on what is still to be done like the weeding!)

H: Health: We know that mind and body are inextricably connected. Connection with nature often involves physical activity and exposure to vitamin D in daylight both of which help maintain physical health.

 

Specific theories on the value of nature

There are a number of additional theories which build on the ideas above specifically in relation to nature and well-being. The first three in particular draw on an evolutionary perspective which suggests that humans are not fully adapted for life in urban environments.

The Biophilia Hypothesis suggests our primordial instincts predispose us to respond positively to natural environments as these resonate unconsciously with our assessment of favourable survival opportunities. This leads to;
The Stress Reduction Theory purports that natural landscapes counteract the psychophysiological impact of stress (like an undoing effect).

The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature restores the brain’s attentional capacities which are depleted by the concentration demands of urban environments and modern lifestyles. Evidence for this is equivocal.

The Philosophical (Stoic/Buddhist) Perspective or Individual preference and meaning-based approach, suggests that nature enhances well-being via contact with Open Source Intelligence (OSI). This is a way of “knowing” related to mindfulness which promotes a changed perspective on the sense of self. The self is viewed as part of the holistic cosmos and the process of evolution through time fostering a sense of connection and an integrated whole. This leads to enhanced meaning and purpose and eudaimonic well-being.

 

Conclusion

It can be seen that many of these theories draw out elements discussed above in relation to the PERMAH model. You can ask yourself how your connections with nature might be developed or extended to help you bolster the pillars of well-being in the PERMAH model or see if any of the theories discussed resonate with your experience and can be built on. For example, how often do you interact with nature and in what ways? Can you extend this in terms of a range of interaction, frequency or duration? What do you think would help you? Would walking with a friend be useful or do you think making time to savour the birdsong when outside would benefit you? Perhaps you feel motivated to campaign for a natural habitat that you care about, thus engaging purpose?

It is also important to consider our individual context in understanding how we might use contact with nature to support our personal well-being. What is practically possible in your situation and what resonates with your personal preferences? You could look at trying wild swimming instead of pool-based activity; if you are housebound you could possibly spend more time looking at the bird table outside your window or if your life is non-stop busy perhaps have a photo of your favourite natural place as your phone screensaver and try to connect with the feeling of “being there” once a day.

There are many possible ways we can all incorporate nature into our lives to boost our well-being. Try different approaches, mix them up regularly and see what works for you. For me, looking at the ocean or a starry sky always helps me feel at once small and insignificant and simultaneously connected to the universe and in touch with feelings of awe and transcendence which grounds me and helps put my problems in perspective. I hope this blog may help you find something useful in nature to nurture you.

References
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J.P., & Daily, G.C. (2012). The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1249, 118-136.

Fabjanski, M. & Brymer, E. (2017). Enhancing health and wellbeing through immersion in nature: A conceptual perspective combining the Stoic and Buddhist traditions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1573.

Frost, S., Kannis-Dymand, L., Schaffer, V., Millear, P., Allen, A., Stallman, H., Mason, J., Wood, A. & Atkinson-Nolte, J. (2022). Virtual immersion in nature and psychological well-being: A systematic literature review. J. of Environmental Psychology, 80, 101765.

Lim, P., Dillon, D. & Chew, P. (2020). A guide to nature immersion: Psychological and physiological benefits. In. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 17, 5989.

Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D & McEwan, K. (2020) The relationship between nature connectedness and eudaimonic well-being: A meta-analysis.  Journal of Happiness Studies, 21,1145-1167.

 

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