With summer just around the corner, Dr Miles Richardson, Director of Core Psychology Programmes for the University of Derby Online Learning, explains how emotion, compassion, meaning and beauty can help people become closer to nature.
General contact and knowledge-based activities are often used in an attempt to engage people with nature. However, the specific routes to nature connectedness have not been examined systematically, until now. I, along with David Sheffield, Associate Head of Centre for Psychological Research at the University of Derby, and Ryan Lumber, Lecturer in Psychology at De Monfort University, have carried out research and found there is a need to go beyond activities that simply engage people with nature, through knowledge and identification, to pathways that develop a more meaningful and emotional relationship.
The 5 pathways to nature connection:
Explore, take a closer look and get in touch with the natural world. Engage with nature through the senses for pleasure e.g. listening to birdsong, smelling wild flowers, watching the sunset.
Take time to appreciate the beauty of Mother Nature. Engage with the aesthetic qualities e.g. appreciating natural scenery or connecting through the arts.
Consider what nature means to you. Using natural symbolism (e.g. language and metaphors) to represent an idea, thinking about the meaning and signs of nature, e.g. the first swallow of summer.
Find happiness and wonder. Find an emotional bond with, and love, for nature e.g. talking about, and reflecting on your feelings about nature.
Think about what you could do for nature. Extending the self to include nature, leading to a moral and ethical concern e.g. making ethical product choices, concerned with animal welfare.
The research conducted at the University started with two online surveys of engagement with nature activities structured around the nine values of the Biophila Hypothesis. Edward O Wilson introduced and popularised the Biophilia Hypothesis in 1984, which suggests that humans have a need to seek connection with nature and other forms of life. Participants aged 18 and over were recruited via social media. A total of 321 participants were involved, aged 18-78.
The analysis from our surveys showed that contact, emotion, meaning, and compassion were predictors of connection with nature. Importantly, knowledge-based activities, such as observing the natural world and increasing understanding, were not. Similarly, purely utilitarian (e.g. growing veg and hunting) and dominionistic activities (e.g. using natural spaces for sport) were not related to nature connection.
In a third study, contact, emotion, meaning, compassion and engagement with natural beauty were operationalised in a walking intervention. Seventy-two male participants, aged 18-57, were involved in a walk around the University, which was interspersed with activities. The activities involved having a conversation with others about their thoughts and feelings about their surroundings, writing down the meaning of any symbolism they could infer from what they could see, and viewing a short video about creating homes for nature. This intervention was found to significantly increase connection to nature when compared to just walking – in fact, the increase in nature connection was twenty times higher.
Summarising the three studies, they show that the five pathways lead to an improvement in nature connectedness. There is a need to move beyond superficial contact or focusing exclusively on knowledge and identification when fostering a relationship with nature. Researchers and practitioners interested in facilitating nature connectedness and its associated benefits should focus specifically on activities that involve the pathways, which also provide alternative values and frames to the traditional knowledge and identification routes often used by organisations when engaging the public with nature.
The pathways provide plenty of ways to make nature part of your life, depending on what works for you. From being out, active and in contact, to reflecting on meaning, there are many ways to make nature part of your everyday being.
This research conducted at the University of Derby has been central to our recent Nature Connections work, for example, guiding the type of activities promoted as part of The Wildlife Trust’s highly successful 30 Days Wild campaign.
To read the research paper, ‘Beyond knowing nature: Contact, emotion, compassion, meaning, and beauty are pathways to nature connection’, click here.