Evidence for improving the human-nature relationship

MAY 2022

Nature Connectedness researchers from Derby University (UK) recently published results from an important meta-analysis that covered studies that looked at how nature connectedness can be improved in adults. Clearly, it's all well and good knowing that nature connection is beneficial to us, but of little use if we cannot reliably improve it. 

What is a meta-analysis? It is a "study of studies". In other words, researchers review a set of papers meeting given criteria on a particular topic and then draw out the common trends among those papers. Meta-analyses are particularly useful in helping us to have more confidence in generalisations we can make, as they include multiple studies which have been carried out across multiple contexts.  
The authors reviewed 36 published papers involving 2855 participants. Whilst the interventions used in these studies had a significant medium positive effect in increasing nature connection, it is interesting that this this meta-analysis was unable to detect significant differences between nature contact (indirect v direct) and nature connection (passive v active) in terms of being a reliable predictor for effect size for nature connectedness outcomes.  [Although it is important to note that such studies can never really know how all participants in a given study actually engaged with nature. People who may have been asked to simply go on a walk could have actually been highly attentive to nature and, conversely, participants who were asked to engage their senses may not have done so].
However, it was evident from this study that daily, weekly or monthly activities were able to create long-term sustained increases in connection. Particularly, the authors note that "the evidence for sustained increases in nature connectedness [demonstrates]... the potential power of carefully designed interventions to create enduring shifts in how people relate to nature."  Given the growing interest in applying the science of nature connectedness for both health (e.g. nature prescriptions) and conservation outcomes, there is a need to increase the evidence base so we can better understanding of the kinds of interventions (or nature engagements) that are most effective. 
What was also clear from this paper is that "the sustained benefits observed in the reviewed studies were obtained from studies that included repeated interventions that involved noticing nature or practising mindfulness or engaging with nature."  The implications are two-fold: firstly, like any behavioural intervention (e.g. think of public health campaigns promoting healthy eating or physical activity), they need to be regular, repeated and ongoing so as to become habit forming.  Secondly, there needs to be some form of active and attentive engagement with the surrounding environment. 

This also echoes outcomes from neuroscience studies on happiness which find that effort - or directed attention - on behalf of the individual is equally - if not more - important than either the 'quality' of the setting or the task itself. In short, whilst quality (e.g. biodiverse) environments can offer greater opportunities for connection, quality nature engagement can happen almost anywhere. "What is needed are opportunities, prompts and invitations for people to engage with nature, and these can be delivered across the whole spectrum [of society]", write the authors. "The research shows that even short moments of engaging with nature can increase feelings of connection."
It is becoming more widely accepted that "targeting sustained improvements in nature connectedness can help address the global calls for a new relationship with nature required for a sustainable future." As the authors emphasise, the results of their meta-analysis confirm that carefully designed repeated interventions (that create the conditions and the prompts for people to engage with - and help them feel closer to - nature) can deliver sustained increases in nature connectedness. Such an endeavour should be central to any organisation or government that is truly committed to improving human wellbeing and planetary health outcomes. 
Take home messages:

  • Both simple nature contact/exposure and specific nature connection interventions can enhance nature connectedness outcomes
  • Sustained benefits were linked to activities involving mindful (pro-active) nature engagement 
  • Sustained benefits need to be regular, repeated and preferably ongoing 
  • Need to increase the evidence base on the type (and length) of interventions having the greatest impact
  • Society needs to offer more opportunities, prompts and invitations for people to engage - and connect - with nature. 

Here at NatureFix, our nature wellness trail and nature prescription programs are designed to target nature interventions proven to increase connection – encouraging individuals to notice, appreciate and relate to nature as part of their everyday.

Source: Sheffield, David, Carly W. Butler, and Miles Richardson.2022. "Improving Nature Connectedness in Adults: A Meta-Analysis, Reviewand Agenda" Sustainability 14, no. 19: 12494. https://doi.org/10.3390/su141912494


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