Beyond Nature Contact to Connection: A Missing Link in a Sustainable and Worthwhile Life

Contact with our natural environment has long been known to be hugely beneficial to wellbeing. But, as Miles Richardson, Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness at the University of Derby explains, new research has shown that having a close connection with the natural world is a key to us to feeling passionate about our environment and better about ourselves too.

The latest research with 4,960 adults across England has found that nature connectedness is important, over and above nature contact, for eudemonic wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours. A large amount of evidence has been published showing time in, and contact with, nature are important for health and wellbeing.  However, much less was known about the contribution of nature connectedness.

Mapping behaviour and nature exposure

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, investigated the relationships between nature contact (visits and neighbourhood greenspace), nature connectedness (using the NCI developed as part of the project), general health, wellbeing, pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours within a single study, using linear regression models.

After accounting for various types of nature exposure and a comprehensive range of socio-demographics (e.g. socio-economic status, neighbourhood deprivation, urbanicity, gender, ethnicity, employment, marital status) we found:

  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and feeling one’s life are worthwhile – nearly 4 times larger than the increase associated with higher socio-economic status.
  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and household pro-environmental behaviours (e.g. recycling, buying locally sourced food, eco-friendly products, walking or cycling).
  • A positive relationship between nature connectedness and pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. supporting nature conservation and volunteering).

For contact with nature we found:

  • Visiting nature once per week or more was associated with better household pro-environmental behaviours and general health (to a level substantially higher than socio-economic status) – but not directly to living a worthwhile life or pro-nature conservation behaviours.
  • Living in a greener neighbourhood was negatively related to general health and unrelated to any wellbeing or sustainability outcomes – highlighting the difference between presence of and use of greenspace.

Relative percentage difference in wellbeing and health as a function of nature contact, nature connectedness and socio-demographic comparators.

The need for a greater connection

These results suggest not only a need to encourage visits to local green spaces, but for the type of activities related to nature connectedness.

The analysis also showed that pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature conservation behaviours are distinct factors and need to be thought of differently.

Household pro-environmental behaviours, such as recycling, were far more frequent in our sample than pro-nature conservation behaviours (e.g. nature conservation volunteering) that are likely to require greater commitment and effort – and, as our related paper reports, are associated with higher levels of nature connectedness.

Relative relationship size between nature connection and nature contact on pro-nature behaviours after controlling for individual, area-level and related outcome covariates.

Nature connectedness is a key target to foster a worthwhile and sustainable life. It also influences the way in which people respond to contact with nature. This suggests that interventions are needed that increase both contact with, and connection to nature, in order to achieve human and nature’s wellbeing.

Encouragingly we know nature connectedness can be increased through simple interventions such as noticing the good things in nature and campaigns such as 30 Days Wild. However, the warming climate and crisis of biodiversity loss show that the human relationship with the rest of nature is broken.

A new, closer and sustainable relationship with nature will require systemic change at deep leverage points. But this research provides an essential first step, identifying the key role of nature connectedness, highlighting a missing link in human and nature’s wellbeing.

Martin, L., White, M. P., Hunt, A., Richardson, M., Pahl, S., & Burt, J. (2020). Nature contact, nature connectedness and associations with health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101389.

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