Connecting To Nature

In simple terms, nature connectedness is a love of nature. It may even involve an emotional affinity for nature. I have made many references in this book to the concept that we (humans, nature and everything in the universe) are all one thing. The more time we spend in nature the more connected we feel to nature.

In the 18th century, poet and writer, Samuel Johnson, wisely stated, “Deviation from nature is deviation from happiness.” 

Nature connectedness is also often a reference to the extent to which an individual includes nature as part of their identity. It can be broken down into three components:

  • The cognitive component  refers to how integrated one feels with nature.
  • The affective component is an individual’s sense of care for nature.
  • The behavioral component is an individual’s commitment to protect the natural environment.

If you spend more time in nature you will probably be more inclined to care about it and protect it. There is research indicating that exposure to nature and feeling connected to nature improves well-being. It has also been shown to cause more positive moods and less negative moods. Therefore, it follows that being disconnected from the natural environment likely causes negative effects on humans’ well-being.

Most of us need to reconnect with nature. The reason I say “reconnect” is that many of us live in urban environments and stay indoors. Some researchers estimate that humans spend up to 90% of their lives indoors.

Our relationship with nature can be described through the concept of Biophilia and the Biophilia hypothesis. This term refers to a humans’ need to affiliate with other life such as plants and animals, or to put it another way, a desire to be near nature. The hypothesis suggests that humans have been hard wired to feel this way as a result of spending the majority of their evolutionary history (over 99%) closely connected to nature. Although evolutionary theory is difficult to test, the popularity of camping, hiking, and visiting zoos, provide support for this theory. 

Nature connectedness is also related to a branch of psychology called ecopsychology. It is concerned with how human well-being is related to the well-being of the natural environment and is based on the idea that the needs of humans and nature are interdependent. Therefore, human health will suffer if nature suffers. This is obviously 100% consistent with the systems thinking we discussed in the chapter called “nature”.

A series of studies (published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2010) have confirmed that being outside in nature makes us feel more alive. The research also indicates that the increased sense of vitality exists beyond the energizing effects of physical activity and social interaction and therefore can be attributed to being in nature rather than other concurrent activities. 

“Nature is fuel for the soul, ” says Richard Ryan, lead author and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”

Rain says that the findings are important for both mental and physical health. “Research has shown that people with a greater sense of vitality don’t just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses. One of the pathways to health may be to spend more time in natural settings”

Research has shown that people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that merely recalling outdoor experiences increases feelings of happiness and well-being. Other research indicates that the simple presence of nature causes approximately 90% of people to feel like they had improved energy. As we discussed in the chapter about energy, you should not be interpreting this research in a one-dimensional manner in the sense that improved energy simply means a higher quantity of energy. You should also consider the “quality” of the energy. This is obviously not a scientific term but I’m sure you understand what I mean.

In order for the perceived benefits to be attributed to nature as opposed to other concurrent activities, the researchers conducted five separate experiments involving 537 college students in actual and imagined contexts. In one experiment, participants were led on a 15-minute walk through indoor hallways or along a tree-lined river path. In another, they viewed photographic scenes of buildings or landscapes. The third experiment required students to imagine themselves in a variety of situations both active and sedentary, inside and out, and with and without others.

Two final experiments tracked participants’ moods and energy levels throughout the day using diary entries. Over either four days or two weeks, students recorded their exercise, social interactions, time spent outside, and exposure to natural environments, including plants and windows.

Regardless of the methodology, individuals consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in natural settings or “imagined themselves in such situations”. Ryan suggested that being outside in nature for just 20 minutes a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels. Interestingly, in the last study, the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. Therefore, the researchers concluded that being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature.

Previously, Ryan, Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and others had conducted research indicating that people are more caring and generous when exposed to nature. “We have a natural connection with living things,” says Ryan. “Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments.” 

Nature and children

In September 2012 the IUCN’s Commission on Education and Communication (IUCN-CEC) and the Children & Nature Network released the Children and Nature Worldwide Summary of Research at the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea.

The report indicated that there was a worldwide trend in which children are disconnected from nature in their everyday lives. C&NN Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus, Richard Louv, highlighted this trend and suggested that reconnecting children and youth with nature helps to support their healthy development and also fosters their lifelong commitment to caring for the Earth itself.

Its authors say that the report is an evidence-based resource that serves as a tool to dramatize the critical reasons for reconnecting people with nature. Among those reasons, nature-based experiences help to offset children’s increasingly sedentary lifestyles with associated negative consequences such as obesity, diminished creativity, attention disorder problems, and, most important to the worldwide conservation community, a lack of experience to prepare them to care for the world’s natural environments for generations to come,” stated Keith Wheeler, Chair of the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.

Does Nature Make Us Happy?

As discussed above there is a growing disconnect between our natural and cognitive worlds. The amount of time spent in nature by most people is diminishing. In the meantime, there is research indicating that our relationship with nature may be closely linked to our happiness.     

Zelenski and Nisbet conducted two studies with the objective of answering the question, Is the link between nature and happiness independent from the other things that make us feel emotionally connected to life, like music and friends?  

They called the concept of how we emotionally connect to our natural world nature relatedness. In the first study, they measured people’s feelings of connectedness across many spheres, including nature. The participants rated their nature relatedness by their level of agreement or disagreement with statements like “My relationship to nature is an important part of who I am,” and “I take notice of wildlife wherever I am.” 

The researchers also used other methods to rate people’s subjective happiness across these same areas. The results indicated that the relationship between nature and happiness was highly significant. 

One of the primary goals of the study “was to determine whether the association between nature relatedness and happiness is due to a general sense of connectedness or a more specific link with nature.” The researchers wanted to understand whether nature provided a sense of happiness exclusive from other things that may be contributing to happiness at the same time. 

The results of their research indicate that “nature relatedness has a distinct happiness benefit” separate from other contributors such as family and friends. The individual’s connection to nature was also correlated with most measures of well-being. This tells us that nature likely plays a very important role in promoting and maintaining positive mental health. 

In order to expand upon the findings of the first study, Zelenski and Nisbet conducted a 2nd study where they used well-validated assessments to more deeply explore various connections to happiness, particularly those of an interpersonal quality, including attachment, interdependence, and belongingness. In addition to replicating the findings of the first study they also wanted to see if nature relatedness could predict happiness. 

The general pattern of findings researchers to conclude that: 

  • Our emotional connectedness to the natural world is distinct from other psychological connections in our lives. 
  • Nature relatedness often predicts happiness regardless of other psychological factors.   
  • Psychological connections with nature have the capacity to facilitate sustainable attitudes toward the environment and, therefore, may play an important role in preserving our environment. 

The field of ecopsychology has emerged in recent years in response to increasing demand to integrate the research and knowledge of ecologists, psychologists, spiritualists, philosophers, and others. The International Community for Ecopsychology says, “Ecopsychology explores the synergistic relationship between personal health and well-being and the health and well-being of our home, the Earth.” 

One example of research that has led to an increased demand for more research in eco-psychology is a 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research that found that kids who learn in outdoor classrooms improve their science scores by 27 percent. 

Beyond the impact on child development, outdoor education also impacts the future of our planet because it results in feeling more connected to nature and this results in an increased likelihood to live a sustainable lifestyle and support environmental causes.

There are many obvious ways to connect with nature. I strongly suggest meditating in nature or, at the very least, sitting still in nature without distraction and use all of your senses in addition to any powers of perception that you have beyond your senses to absorb the true essence of everything in the environment that you find yourself immersed in.

Next article in this series: “Fun And Enjoyment”

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