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My apartment is in a retirement village. The centrepiece of the village is a large green space composed of a bowling green, lawn and bordering gardens of trees, shrubs, herbs and smaller flowering perennials. There are seats dotted around the lawn that are ideal spots for enjoying both the sunshine and the gardens. In my three years living here I have rarely seen the seats being used. But in the last few COVID-19 stay-at-home weeks, I often see a seat or two being occupied. This is not surprising, of course, given that travel beyond the village is restricted and residents have more time (and perhaps more incentive) to enjoy the green space right outside their apartment buildings.

But I find myself wondering whether or not being shut-in is heightening people’s appreciation of the world beyond the four-walls of our homes  – and especially that part of the world where nature is present, including our own gardens and backyards. I even permit myself the hope that what may also be occurring is a discovery and re-discovery of the joys and benefits of nature contacts. Who knows? Perhaps one positive of the COVID-19 pandemic is an increase in people’s engagement with nature and even their nature connectedness.

I am nor holding my breath, as the saying goes, but such an outcome is possible if Miles Richardson’s experience is anything to go by. Miles is Professor of Human Factors and Nature Connectedness and leader of the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby in the UK. Although now a leader in the study and promotion of nature connectedness, his personal journey to nature connectedness took place less than 10 years ago when he was an ergonomist (studying the design of furniture and equipment for workplaces).

During 2011, he exercised by regularly taking hour-long walks in the semi-rural landscape around Needwood in Staffordshire, UK. Although he felt no strong emotional connection with the Staffordshire landscape initially, he was sufficiently interested in his impressions and responses to keep a diary of them for a year. His method was to record his thoughts on a smart phone as he walked, afterwards uploading them to a PC. Overall, 255 walks were documented in this way.

This is an early entry in his diary:

Later in the day, walking through a ribbon of pine trees at Blithfield, there seemed little to be observed, just the bright green moss attempting to climb the tree trunks. I left the wood to cross the meadow, now bare and stony, yet full of red poppies last summer. Over the stile a fallen branch lay helpless, covered in lime and olive coloured lichens, with leaf-buds formed and ready. The path drops and winds through this deciduous wood and it was peaceful. It was good to stop and be surrounded, to try and sense connection. To deal with my new attentiveness to the external world the mind must form new internal connections which take time and continued engagement.

As Miles himself has acknowledged elsewhere, this early entry reveals him to be mainly an observer of nature. The entry hints at his desire for a deeper connection but conveys that such a connection still has to be forged.

Now, compare that entry with this one that appears towards the end of his diary:

There was a glorious aching stillness of powerful affect, contrasting and surpassing the intense energy of the morning’s coast. I was charged by the power of my familiar landscape and I felt alive in the stillness, as a star is bright in the night sky. Where the river was audibly unstill I looked out over the flat lands, from foreground to far, and felt that the landscape and my mind merged, my sense of self dissolved. I had arrived to dull shades of grey but heard the song of the Earth.

Much more than a detached observer of the landscape in this entry, Miles had become part of it; the landscape and his mind had merged. Familiar to him as the landscape was, his sense of oneness with it possessed the power to vitalise and enchant him.

Miles acknowledges that the walks during 2011 re-connected him with nature. They were, he stresses, ordinary walks in everyday nature. Some were in agricultural locations, but many were located in more mundane settings. Through these regular engagements Miles found a “universal story” about our connection with nature – “a story of a unity of life, mind and nature”.

The experience also fuelled his interest in the psychological value of nature generally and in nature connectedness particularly. With his researcher’s hat on, he devised a simple mindfulness activity, 3 Good Things in Nature, to test the proposition that nature connectedness can be fostered in urban as well as rural and “wild” settings. The activity is one you can easily try for yourself. All you have to do is to note each day for five days three good things in the nature that is around you. You can record you observation in writing, on your smart phone as Miles did, or otherwise. The things you list can vary from the small to the vast, from the colour of a butterfly’s wing to storm clouds illuminated by the rays of the setting sun, for example. They can be sensations, such as a bird-call or the texture of moss; they can relate to the change of seasons and the effects of the weather. The possibilities are limitless.

The three photos I have scattered through this post are of the three good things in nature I noted today. The zygocactus has just flowered and the delicate seed-pod clusters on the eucalypt branches supporting the mobiles were fully revealed only yesterday after my wife removed dead leaves (hence my delight today). I did not see the golden autumn tree in real life but the photo of it (which I did receive today) gave me a genuine nature hit anyway.

Well, does the 3 Good Things in Nature activity strengthen nature connectedness? To find out Miles and colleagues conducted an experiment in which they asked 50 people from the general population to undertake the activity while a control group of 42 people to note three factual things (e,g, a person they met, what they ate for lunch). Two months later, the 3 Good Things in Nature group scored significantly higher on a test of nature connectedness than the control group. While this one small study does not demonstrate conclusively that the 3 Good Things in Nature activity works, it is a promising start.

For more information about the work of Miles Richardson and his Nature Connectedness Research Group simply click on “Finding Nature” in Blogroll.  While you are there you really should check out another recently added link – to “Life Rocks”. For anyone interested in connecting children to nature, this is a particularly valuable site.

The prospect the COVID-19 restrictions confining us to our homes for two or three months is pretty daunting. To be stuck indoors for weeks on end with few social contacts can’t be good for us. We may even be running the risk of becoming stir crazy (“stir” is a reference to prison and comes from the Romany word, “staripen”, meaning a place from which you cannot move).

Stir craziness is not a recognised psychiatric condition but being confined indoors (with or without the comforts of home) can make people bored, dispirited, irritable, restless, listless and possibly distrusting of others. And it can be worse if the confinement involves nature deprivation. Prisoners housed in cells with no views of natural features, for example, tend to suffer more ill health and mental distress than inmates in cells with greener outlooks.  

Maintaining social contacts is a very important counter to stir craziness. So too is staying in touch with nature. This can be done even if visits to parks, beaches and other forms of nature are prohibited or not possible for other reasons. At a time when our homes are castles under siege, it is especially important to keep them as places that are physically and psychologically healthy. Nature can help us do this and the suggestions that follow indicate how.

I’ve risked overwhelming you with suggestions, but many are needed, I believe, to cater for people’s differing preferences, needs and circumstances.

It’s worth mentioning also that the suggestions are science based. They reflect especially what is known about nature’s impact on our happiness, health and well-being by way of:

  • exposure to sunshine, fresh air and natural light and other elements of nature that are good for our bodies;
  • experiences that evoke the powerful positive emotions of joy, pleasure, awe and wonder;
  • experiences that calm, restore and comfort.  

The suggestions fall into two groups: those for bringing nature indoors and those for having contact with nature even while homebound.  

Bringing nature indoors

  • open windows and doors to achieve cross ventilation
  • when their use is appropriate, place fans strategically (e.g., near an open window, in a space between rooms) to improve airflow
  • if you have one, use your room de-humidifier
  • keep floors clean by vacuuming and mopping
  • avoid practices that introduce toxic chemicals into indoor air (such as using cleaners containing formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals; burning wood or other fuels in open fireplaces; cooking on a stove without a hood; using an un-flued gas heater; allowing toxic chemicals to accumulate by not ventilating regularly)
  • adjust curtains, blinds, doors and shutters to admit as much natural light as possible
  • soften domestic lighting in the hour before bedtime
  • avoid using back-lit appliances leading up to bedtime
  • enjoy a backyard “campfire” occasionally to increase exposure to the red end of the natural light spectrum. Outdoor fireplaces, fire-pits and fire-bowls are easy to improvise if you don’t already have one. (see the following posts for more information: Sept 8, 2013, Jul 10, 2014 and Jul 21, 2014 )
  • decorate living and work areas with indoor plants such as peace lilies, dracaenas,  spider plants and boat lilies ( Moses-in-the-cradle), noting that some indoor plants are toxic to cats and dogs and that indoor plants cannot be relied on to clean indoor air of toxins.
  • have cut flowers on show (the more colourful the better)  – a guaranteed source of joy
  • place nature pictures or posters on your desk and walls
  • choose nature images for your screen saver

Nature activities for the homebound  

  • look at greenery outside for five minutes
  • go outside and feel the sun on your face for one minute
  • look at clouds (perhaps with the help of resources from the Cloud Appreciation Society)
  • watch a sunset and a sunrise
  • look at the stars
  • look at the full moon
  • watch the birds in nearby trees
  • count the birds (and perhaps try to identify them)
  • listen to the songs and calls of birds outside your home
  • look for insects and watch their behaviour
  • watch goldfish in an indoor aquarium or garden pond
  • watch skinks and/or other lizards in your garden
  • study the webs of spiders
  • smell flowers
  • crumple leaves (of aromatic plants like eucalypts and native mint bushes) and smell them
  • feel the bark of different trees
  • notice how the raindrops look on a flower or leaf
  • go outside in the early morning and look at the dew on the grass
  • lie on grass for a short time
  • walk on grass barefoot
  • read or listen to music outside
  • go for a short walk to look at neighbourhood gardens
  • go for a walk in the rain (umbrellas permitted)
  • take a short walk in the early morning sunlight (without sunglasses) 
  • have a “sunshine break” during the day (particularly important if you spend the day in artificial lighting and also for maintaining your body’s production of vitamin D)
  • look at photographic books about nature
  • look back through your photo collection and trip diaries to revive memories of past nature experiences
  • watch TV nature documentaries
  • take in some nature-related TED talks (good for sparking interest, wonder and curiosity); recommendations to start with:

Suzanne Simard. How tree talk to each other  and Alex Hannold – How I climbed a 3,000 foot vertical cliff without ropes

  • watch nature videos on You tube – just search “You Tube nature videos”
  • listen to birdsong on You tube videos, CDs and DVDs, e.g., A Morning in the Australian Bush, Favourite Australian Birdsong, Nature Walks – In the Forest
  • establish a “micro garden”: click on this link for inspiration  
  • try your hand at nature art/craft (great to share with kids): search “nature art and crafts” on the Internet

When normal activities are severely restricted, it is important to maintain order and routine in our daily lives. Nature activities lend themselves to routines, but take care not to make the activities things you feel you must or ought to do. Think of them as securing your special joy, relaxation or time-out moments.    

You might also be attracted to the idea of approaching nature activities with an “awareness plan” in mind. Such a plan covers simple ways of tuning into nature with all of your senses. You might plan to look at natural settings through different eyes – those of an artist, conservationist or photographer, for example.

I am returning to publishing blog posts after many months of writing about nature in another way. The revision of my ebook, Claim Your Wildness, morphed into a project to write a different book altogether. That project is ongoing and, after a confident start (as my previous post may have conveyed), it is back to the drawing-board.

Although I have withdrawn Claim Your Wildness, the book’s message that connecting with nature is good for us – is as valid as ever. But recent advances in the science of the relationship between nature and human well-being require a recasting of the message to highlight the importance, indeed the necessity, of “nature connectedness”.

Not to be confused with being in touch with nature physically, nature connectedness is a far more encompassing and deeper relationship. It is like being a friend of nature. Just as we relate to our friends with affection, interest, respect and concern for their well-being, we are nature connected when we have much the same kind of relationship with nature. Nature connectedness is a whole-of-person experience, involving our feelings and values and affecting our sense of who we are and what our life is about. If you would like to meet a nature connected person click here.

My interest in nature connectedness was first sparked when I learned of its association with happiness – both the feeling good and functioning well kind (see my February 2018 post ). My interest became a passion when I learned two other things about nature connectedness.

The first is that nature connectedness drives pro-environmental behaviour. If there was a time in human history when such behaviour is needed, it surely is now. Natural environments across the planet are suffering primarily because of human indifference, thoughtlessness, ignorance, neglect and rapacity. If this suffering is to be relieved, human values and actions in relation to nature have to change radically and urgently. There is compelling evidence that cultivating nature connectedness can help bring this change about.

The second thing about nature connectedness that has galvanised my thinking was unveiled in a very recent article by two Canadian psychologists, Daniel Baxter and Luc Pelletier. They showed that the need for nature connectedness is part of our psychological make-up. It is a need that motivates us to have a close relationship with other living things and natural environments in general. Satisfying the need is rewarding and beneficial to happiness, health and well-being, while neglecting it is damaging, increasing the risk of physical illness, mental distress and, in the case of children, impaired development.

As a basic psychological need, the need for nature connectedness is much more than a “want”. A want is a desire for something that would be nice to have but can be done without – an option rather than an imperative. A need, on the other hand, always arises from a requirement that is integral to life and well-being – an imperative rather than an option. Frustrate the need for water, for example, and death is inevitable; frustrate the need for loving, close, and supportive social relationships and physical and mental health is in jeopardy. Frustrate the need for nature connectedness and any chance of living our best life is missed. Living without the companionship of nature is rather like playing a piano but ignoring the black keys or having a sailing boat but never using the spinnaker.

Nature connectedness is the best and most desirable relationship we can have with the natural world. In having such a relationship, we are taking care both of ourselves and of nature. We are addressing, in fact, two of the major preoccupations of our times:

  • maximising personal happiness, well-being and health in the face of rapidly changing, uncertain and often alienating social and economic circumstances, and
  • alleviating the potentially catastrophic impact of human activity on the natural environment.

This is a big claim but it is supported by a large body of evidence from research in fields as diverse as environmental psychology and forestry; eco-psychology and horticulture; leisure studies and public health; architecture and neuroscience. It also echoes the view of the 196 member countries of the United Nations sponsored Convention on Biological Diversity. The 2018 conference of these countries issued this call to action:

The time is now. The evidence is clear. One of the most important things that any of us can do for ourselves, those we love, people throughout the world, and the living systems that support us all is to connect with nature.

I am writing this post as the world is in struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic. My country is on the verge of total lockdown. “Stay at home” is the official stipulation. So much for connecting with nature to safeguard well-being, we might think. But, even in the confinement of our homes, there are ways of drawing on nature’s sustenance and comfort. This is the topic I propose for my next post.  

 

What began as a touch-up finished up a complete makeover (the molehill became a mountain).

I am not talking about cosmetic surgery but the revision of my e-book, Claim Your Wildness (CYW). This book was my first large-scale venture into sharing what I have learned over many years about the rich association between a nature connectedness and a happy and healthier life.

Since CYW was published in 2013, the scientific study of the nature-wellbeing connection has moved on apace. For most of the intervening six years, I have drawn material for this blog from the interesting and exciting research findings that have been streaming out.

But as perhaps you have noticed, things have gone very quiet on the blog front over the past year. This is not because there has nothing new and valuable to talk about. Quite the contrary, it is because what I thought would be a simple revision of CYW, requiring weeks, morphed into many months of additional writing as well as revising. So much so, in fact, that at the end of it all, I found myself with a NEW book altogether.

The new opus is awaiting a name but its working title is Nature and You: Making the Happiness, Health and Wellbeing Connection (NaY). There is nothing wrong with the message and content of CYW, let me say. Both are as scientifically valid today as they were in 2013. But as I worked through the publications spawned in the last six years, I realised that doing this new material justice required a bigger canvas than even a revised CYW could provide.

NaY comprises two parts, the first about the why of connecting with nature and the second about the how. Among topics covered in NaY but not in CYW are awe and wonder, the nature of nature connectedness and connecting with nature in difficult times.

Here is a sample of the new insights about the value of a nature connection that are presented in NaY:

  • Living without nature is rather like playing a piano but ignoring the black keys or having a sailing boat but never using the spinnaker
  • Just as feed-lot cows can never be fully cows or battery chickens fully chickens, humans confined to a constructed and technological world can never be fully human

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • A fully nature-connected person:
    • Ø yearns to be in contact with nature
    • Ø has a strong emotional attachment to nature
    • Ø is driven by a desire to learn about nature
    • Ø feels a sense of kinship with the inhabitants of the natural world
    • Ø is strongly and actively committed to the welfare of the natural environment
  • Nature is an inexhaustible stimulus of awe and wonder, both emotions with the power to make us smarter, kinder and more spiritually aware
  • People who live close to natural or urban greenspace are at reduced risk of
    • Ø dying prematurely from any cause
    • Ø dying from cardiovascular disease
    • Ø developing type II diabetes
    • Ø suffering from anxiety, depression, stress disorders and schizophrenia.
  • The potential of natural environments to influence immune- and inflammatory- regulation may prove to be a major component of the health benefits of green space
  • By comparison with their nature-deprived peers, children who have regular, rich and varied contacts with the natural world, especially through nature play, stand to enjoy a host of advantages – physical, biological, emotional, cognitive and social
  • The sharp decline over the past half-century in children’s free play has paralleled a marked increase in the prevalence of anxiety, depression, suicide, feelings of helplessness and narcissism among children, adolescents and young adults
  • There are ways of connecting with nature that are surprisingly close-at-hand – “everyday’ green activities that bring nature to you in your home and workplace and activities that are easily made part of work and leisure life
  • Nature is not just a fair-weather friend but is there for us in difficult times as well – times of anxiety, grief, depression, alienation, conflict and self-doubt

 

The tonic of green space

It’s been a while since my last post. Thank you, if you have noticed. The gap does not indicate any waning of my enthusiasm for the cause of connecting people to nature. If anything my enthusiasm is stronger.

I have been distracted from my blog by the task of revising Claim Your Wildness with a view to making it available as a paperback as well as an e-book. The revised edition will be in two parts, the first covering the “Why” of connecting with nature, and the second, the “How”. The “Why” part will comprise most of book’s existing chapters plus a chapter on awe and wonder. The “How” part will be a major addition to the book and will be a comprehensive source of practical guidelines for connecting with nature in the home, neighbourhood and beyond.  It will also have a “how-to” chapter on connecting children with nature and one on using nature as a resource for health and wellness.

Speaking of nature and health, a landmark paper has just been published on that topic. The paper is based on extensive work done by Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Andy Jones both from the University of East Anglia Disappointingly, the paper has had little media coverage even though what it has to say is of enormous public policy as well as personal significance.

The paper does not report the findings of a new investigation but the results of a synthesis of 143 studies into the effects of access to green space on physical health. The forms of green space represented in the review cover undeveloped land with natural vegetation as well as urban parks and vegetated streets. The studies are from 20 countries including the UK, the USA, Spain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The number of subjects involved in the individual studies varied but in some cases ran into the millions.

The strength of research reviews is that their results are obtained by pooling and analysing the actual data or “numbers” (rather than the stated findings) from separate studies. Some sophisticated statistical techniques are involved on top of the rigorous procedures that have to be followed to ensure that the pool of studies is as complete as possible and only scientifically sound studies are included. In some ways, a well conducted review is as good as doing a single massive study. This means that the results of reviews are more trustworthy than those from individual studies.

For their review, Bennett and Jones, compared the health markers (e.g., blood pressure)  and conditions (e.g., diabetes II) of two categories of people, those with little access to green spaces and those with the highest amount of exposure.

They found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration. People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress.

Back in the 19th century Henry David Thoreau wrote about the tonic of wildness to convey his belief in the health benefits of exposure to nature. More recently, the terms, “vitamin G” (for greenspace) and “vitamin N” (for nature) have been coined for the same purpose.

The findings of the Bennett and Jones review confirm that such terms are scientifically valid as well as “catchy”. We do well (literally) to see exposure to nature as an ingredient of a healthy lifestyle just as essential as being physically active, following dietary guidelines and being socially engaged. We also need to send the message to politicians, planning bureaucrats and developers that investment in greenspace is investment in public health no less important than the spending on “public illness” (much of which is in our own hands to prevent).

 

My last post was about the link between nature connectedness and happiness, making this an appropriate spot to take a broader look at the important concept of nature connectedness. Specifically, I would like to provide a picture of what nature connectedness looks like “in the flesh” – in a person’s behaviour, in other words. Such a picture enables us to recognise a nature connected person when we meet them. It may also broaden you own awareness and appreciation of yourself.

First let me sketch the picture in broad strokes.

A nature connected person:

  • yearns to be in contact with nature as much as possible
  • has a strong emotional attachment to nature
  • is driven by a desire to know more about nature
  • feels a sense of kinship with the inhabitants of the natural world
  • has a strong and active commitment to the welfare of nature
  • has nature woven into their sense of self

A person displaying these characteristics can truly be regarded as having a “friendship” with nature. Indeed, if you substituted “another person” for all the references to “nature” in the five points, you would have a pretty complete definition of conventional friendship.

One of the most nature connected people you could hope to meet is Revol Erutan (ee-root-tan), known as Rev to his friends and acquaintances. Rev is the walking and talking embodiment of what it means to have a deep “friendship” with nature.

He spends much of his leisure time bushwalking, canyoning and rock climbing. By profession he is a horticulturalist, having chosen that career ahead of other options he had. The extent of his contact with the natural world is certainly a pointer to his nature-connectedness, but it is not a fully reliable indicator. For a better one, you need to ask what motivates Rev’s nature activities. Contrary to what you might expect, his motivation has less to do with achieving performance or ego-enhancing goals, such as completing a demanding walk or managing a challenging rock climb, than with the joy, peace and other “intrinsic” delights of simply being in nature. For Rev, there does not have to be a reason for seeking nature experiences – in the same way that just being with a loved one is an end in itself. In the spirit of the Scandinavian philosophy of Frituftsliv, Rev simply seeks the companionship of nature.

Rev clearly has a love of nature. The efforts he makes to maintain regular contact with domesticated as well as “wild” nature indicate that. So too does the confidence he has that nature does all kinds of “good things” for people. There is no “perhaps” or “maybe” about this as far as Rev is concerned. As a result, he constantly wants to share his nature experiences with others. He enjoys leading bushwalks especially to places that are favourites of his because of their natural beauty, peace and tranquillity. When they are with him in the bush and indeed in the gardens where he works, people can’t help noticing his energy and enthusiasm as he constantly draws attention to plants, birds, animals and features of the landscape. He seems to more “tuned-in” than most other people to the beauty, awe and wonder of the natural world and to the restorative power of nature. He reports having a strengthened sense of vitality when he is close to nature. After time away in the bush, Rev usually returns with the “bushwalker’s glow, an emotional high characterised by feelings of well-being and bonhomie. Not surprisingly, he feels regret, even sadness, when he has to leave the bush behind. Rev strongly believes that Harold Thurman (1899-1981; theologian and civil rights leader) has got it right when he says:

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Even though his horticultural training puts him ahead of most other people as far as understanding plant behaviour and ecology are concerned, Rev never seems to tire of observing and investigating nature. He is always on the lookout for insects, animals, flowers and notable landscape features. He seems to have a sharper awareness of the natural environment than most other people. Not surprisingly, he is an avid watcher of nature shows on TV and subscribes to several outdoor and conservation magazines. He also has an impressive kit of bushcraft skills. Lighting a fire in steady rain is no problem to him, for example. Altogether Rev’s confidence in his knowledge and skills allows him to feel very much “at home” in wild places.

For Rev, other living creatures are much more than objects to be studied. He respects them and strongly defends their right to an uncompromised existence. He would detour around an orb spider’s web stretching across a bush track rather than damage it. Sensitive and caring behaviour of this kind is his typical modus operandi in nature, reflecting the empathy he has with all living creatures and the world on which they depend. He gets enormous pleasure from chance moments spent in the presence of a wombat, wallaby, echidna, water dragon or other citizens of the bush. He is distressed and angered by attitudes and actions that threaten the well-being of nature’s inhabitants – large and small; beautiful and ugly, benign and dangerous (deadly pathogens excepted). Although hunting for “sport” is anathema to him, he admires those indigenous hunting cultures that have succeeded in living off nature sustainably. Rev would say of himself that he feels a genuine sense of kinship with other creatures. There are no strings attached to his relationship with nature. It has the quality of encounter, an I-you rather than an I-it relationship. He accepts nature as it is, with all the challenges it can pose and the discomforts it can deliver. He has no desire to change nature or to “overcome” it.

Rev’s kinship with nature fires a very active commitment to sustainability and conservation. He is a “greenie” – not in the political but the practical sense. On the home front, he is an exemplary re-user and recycler. Although an apartment dweller, he maintains a worm farm and has managed to get a compositing system operating in his block (the compost goes to a nearby community garden where Rev helps out). In relation to the conservation scene, he is a member of at least two environmental organisations and participates in rallies, marches and other activities concerned with the welfare of the natural environment.

If Rev were ever to talk about himself at any length, you would learn that his sense of who he is – his sense of identity – is tightly bound up with his experience of nature. His image or concept of himself is highly coloured by the feelings, attitudes and values he has towards the natural world and by what he does in and for nature. It would be very clear that he feels at one with nature, not only intellectually but also emotionally and spiritually. He does not see himself as separate from the natural world but part of it – belonging to nature as much as nature belongs to him.

It will come as no surprise that Rev attributes much of his happiness and well-being to nature. He is testimony to the value of being a “nature person”. We could do a lot worth than aspiring to be like him.

Time now to come clean: there is no actual person, Revol Erutan (Perhaps his name – “nature lover” in reverse – may have made you suspicious), but there is a reality behind the fiction. He is a composite of real-life nature connected people I know personally or from autobiographical accounts. More than that; he faithfully reflects observations and data from formal studies of nature connectedness and nature connected people. He may not exist in fact, but many others like him certainly do.

What makes you happy?

“I wish I had let myself be happier”.

This was one of the five common regrets of dying people as reported by palliative care nurse, Bonnie Ware, (see my last post).

The message for us is obvious – make and take as many opportunities as we can to be happy.

Straightforward as it may seem, this message raises the two age-old questions: What is happiness? and How do we achieve it?

Philosophers and psychologists have traditionally thought about happiness and its attainment it in one of two ways. The oldest point of view is that happiness is experiencing more pleasure than pain, so finding happiness involves maximising pleasure and minimising pain.

This is the hedonistic or what Martin Seligman calls the “pleasant life” view of happiness. Happy people, according to this perspective, are strong on fun-seeking, satisfying desires and avoiding unpleasantness (pain).

The second and more recent standpoint argues that happiness is all about achieving fulfilment, satisfaction and meaning in life. This is referred to as the eudiamonistic (eu = good; daimon = spirit) view of happiness because it has to do with personal growth and the realization of potential.

There are two variations on the eudiamonistic theme: desire theory and objective list theory. According to desire theory, happiness is a matter of getting what you want without regard to the worthiness or otherwise of what is desired. Desire theory and hedonism overlap when what we want is lots of pleasure and little pain. But desire theory goes further by holding that fulfilling a desire contributes to happiness regardless of the pleasure (or pain) involved. A climber on top of Mt Everest can be very happy even though she is exhausted, frost-bitten and uncertain about the descent. Desire theory is the “good life” view of happiness and is conspicuously on display in consumerism.

Objective list theory holds that happiness resides in the pursuit of goals that are objectively judged to be worthwhile – career success, friendship, relief of poverty and kindness to others, for example. Such goals are transcendent in the sense that they are larger and more worthwhile than just the self’s pleasures and desires. The objective list theory gives us the “meaningful life” view of happiness.

Seligman, accepts that each of the three forms of happiness are genuine but insists that “authentic happiness” comprises all three. He says that only by experiencing the three can we lay claim to living the “full life”.

We don’t need research to tell us that good health is a powerful contributor to happiness in all its forms. This is intuitively obvious. But research has identified other factors such as income level (but only up to the point beyond which each additional dollar makes no difference), education, marital status, volunteering, religious faith and physical attractiveness.

Matching the most significant of these is another that may surprise you – “nature connectedness” (NC). Just as we all differ on personality traits such as extraversion, conscientiousness and openness, we differ on the degree to which we feel connected with the natural world. People with a strong sense of connection to nature feel a kinship with animals and plants and think of the natural world as a community to which they belong. They spend more time in the out-of-doors, engage in nature conservation activities and practices and exhibit a high degree of concern about the human impact on planetary health.

Before reading on, please click on this link and run the immensely entertaining video to watch NC on display – in quite small children as well as adults. In fact, we are all born with the biological foundations of NC but what is built on these foundations depends very much on life experiences and culture. Just like many other characteristics of personality, NC is the product of heredity and environment – nature and nurture – working together.

Several well-tested measures of NC have been developed. This has paved the way for research into NC’s relationship with other aspects of personality and behaviour including happiness.

The study of the link between NC and happiness has attracted quite a deal of research attention, to the extent that a recent review  of the research was able to integrate the findings of no fewer than 21 scientifically sound studies. The review pooled data from the 21 studies in such a way as to extract findings that were reflective of all the studies combined. What this means is that we have findings effectively from a sample of over 8,500 subjects, of both genders, aged from 19 to 63 years, with diverse educational backgrounds and from a range of North American, European and Asian countries. The findings also relate to both hedonistic and eudaimonistic happiness as measures of either or both were used in the studies.

The general picture that emerged from the review is that people who are more connected with nature experience more positive emotions, vitality (get-up-go) and satisfaction with life. Although in measurement terms, the associations were small they were of a similar size to those reported for the other known contributors to happiness mentioned earlier – income, education, volunteering, etc. Interestingly, NC’s strongest association was with vitality, which probably straddles both the two main types of happiness.

The broad conclusion of the review is that being connected with nature and feeling happy are linked. But it has yet to be established how the link works. One possible path is that a high level of NC makes us more open and emotionally responsive to nature’s beauty, awesomeness and tranquillity. There is indeed some evidence for this . And of course, people who are highly connected with nature are also more likely to engage in outdoor activities that are enjoyable and rewarding.

Since strong NC is an ingredient of happiness it would be great if we knew for certain how NC is best nurtured. A broad brush theory is that NC develops as a consequence of engaging with nature in pleasurable and rewarding ways. But that theory needs to tested and refined to account for differences in people’s make-up, life experiences and circumstances.

Do you feel you have a strong NC? If so, how did you get it? Answers to the second question would be really worth sharing, don’t you agree? (In thinking about the first question, you might care to click on this link and scroll down to where the items of the Connectedness to Nature Scale are listed. If you decide to try the scale, remember that for the items marked “reverse”, 1 is scored 5, 2 is sored 4, and so on. The closer your total score is to 70, the stronger is your connection to nature.)

 

I am not really a New Year’s resolution person, but an article  and book by Bronnie Ware got me thinking that there are some resolutions really worth making and keeping. A palliative care nurse of longstanding, Bronnie has accompanied many people through the last weeks of their lives. Many of these times, she says were “incredibly special” – times of growth and positive change as well as times of emotional distress.

It was Bronnie’s practice to ask her patients about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently. She found that five themes repeatedly came through the replies:

  • I wish I’d the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (A regret from almost every male patient).
  • I wish I’d the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier.

It is easy to draw personal resolutions of real substance and significance from each of these themes. When I did this for myself, I also had in mind a comment my friend Tory Hughes made when I asked her why people were retreating from nature and missing out on so much pleasure, happiness, personal fulfilment and friendship as a result. According to Tory, it is because people have difficulty giving themselves permission to do otherwise. Real and perceived work, social and family obligations and pressures get in the way of doing things that really matter for oneself (and those dear to us), including connecting with nature.

In addition to identifying the obvious general guidelines that are suggested by the themes, I also pondered how the themes could help us rethink our day-to-day relationship with nature. The result is a kind of personal mission statement.

I give myself permission to:

  • acknowledge my need for nature and to give priority to meeting that need;
  • work less and “play” more in natural environments (especially with my family and friends);
  • find emotional stimulation and expressive outlets in nature;
  • spend more leisure time with others in natural settings; and
  • find pleasure and joy in natural places and the things of nature.

I sometimes think that sharing such thoughts – with a view to promoting engagement with nature – is as productive as whistling in the wind. But then along comes evidence that restores my belief that people’s desire for nature, though muted in many cases, is alive and well.

Just this week, for example, the press carried a report of a government survey which asked participants, all drawn from across the suburbs of Sydney, to rank the characteristics of their area that they most valued.

The areas surveyed differed markedly in the mix of built and green spaces, some were much more endowed with urban bushland or parks. But across all areas, the attribute most valued was “elements of the natural environment”, or the areas natural features such as views, vegetation, topography, water and wildlife. Not surprisingly, this attribute was most likely to top the list in the best endowed areas.

These findings echo those of many other similar surveys, all sending the clear message – people want to have nature in their lives. Even though they may not always realise it, this desire is part of their genetic heritage, a universal urge prompting them to seek that which is their birthright.

Happy New Year in and out of nature.

 

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that there is a connection between the damaging social inequality characteristic of most western societies and people’s concern for nature. Nature is losing out in those societies where the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” is widening (as it is in most first-world and some developing countries). Why this is so is still being investigated but research already indicates that personal and social values are involved.

Driven by an obsession with production and consumption, western societies have embraced values that are both socially divisive and environmentally prejudicial. These values are the antithesis of those that underpinned the survival of our species through thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years. These “primal” or “natural” values are those that safeguarded group cohesion and the equitable sharing of food and other essential resources. The successful hunter–gather societies were (and indeed still are) egalitarian rather than hierarchical. Most modern societies comprise hierarchically ordered groups – a few, small and powerful “have” groups at the top of the pile, more, larger and powerless “have-not” groups at the bottom, with other groups of varying affluence and power strung out between.

According to the proponents of “social dominance theory”, the affluent and powerful groups in society seek to preserve their status by manoeuvring politically and otherwise to defend and even increase their affluence and power. Other groups in society are seen as “inferior” and less worthy of the “good life”. We are seeing the consequences of this mind-set and its underlying values in the flowering of far right politics, the rampant distrust of political and corporate power brokers and the growing acceptance of bigotry, racism and discrimination.

When members of a society embrace the social dominance mind-set, concern for others and compassion are casualties.  Hunter-gatherer societies go out of their way to prevent this happening. The Ju/’hoansi (pronounced Dju-kwa-si) people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, are “fiercely egalitarian and uncompromisingly committed to sharing. They regard selfishness with hostility and are strongly opposed to self-promotion and arrogance. As life in Ju/’hoansi communities is very public, the close and constant scrutiny for violation of these values is both possible and effective. The communities also employ elaborate practices to keep egos in check. These practices include downplaying the value of a hunter’s kill, making self-effacing comments, using put-downs and giving back-handed compliments. They have no formal leadership institutions. Men and women enjoy equal decision-making powers, children play largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, are not afforded any special privileges.

All of this discourages the accumulation of wealth and influence, and the over-exploitation of the environment. Unsurprisingly, traditional Ju/’hoansi communities are generally carefree, harmonious and co-operative and have a low incidence of depression, anxiety, hostility and aggression. It should also come as no surprise that the Ju/’hoansi are part of one of most stable, enduring, successful and sustainable societies that has ever existed. Genomic and archaeological evidence indicates that they have been around for at least 150,000 years, having navigated the climatic and other crises that decimated many other human populations.

As well as living compassionately and sustainably with one another, the Ju/’hoansi are masters of living compassionately and sustainably with nature. Their desert habitat in southern Africa is one of the few regions on earth where multiple species of megafauna have survived the coming of humans. The Ju/’hoansi still make use of over 150 plant species and are able to track and trap virtually any animal they choose to. Despite their extraordinary skills, they have only ever worked to meet their immediate needs (typically for about 15 hours per week), have not stored surpluses, and have never harvested more than they could eat in the short term. The Ju/’hoansi clearly do not comply with the assumption of modern economic theory that people always have wants beyond their means (the so-called “problem of scarcity”); the Ju/’hoansi have few wants and ample means to meet them. This has prompted anthropologists to dub them, “the original affluent society”. But theirs is “affluence without abundance”.

Even though Ju/’hoansi society could never be considered a blueprint for our own, we would be stupid not to draw lessons from their way of life and particularly their egalitarianism. While egalitarianism and self-interest can co-exist, the empathic, and indeed compassionate, concern for others is a strong driver of egalitarianism. To value egalitarianism, therefore, is to value empathy and compassion.

In the social dominance mindset, compassion struggles to have a significant influence. As a consequence a concern for others and altruistic behaviour are likely to be muted. And the consequences may not stop there. German researchers recently reported studies showing not only that compassion marches hand in hand with a concern for nature but also that the relationship is causal – increase compassion and nature also benefits.

These findings may help to explain the connection I referred to at the beginning of this post –  between social inequality and a diminished concern for nature.

The strongest evidence we have of this connection comes from a survey of 4500 participants from 25 countries. The survey measured social dominance mindset with a questionnaire that requires respondents to declare the strength of their agreement or disagreement with a series of statements such as, “An ideal society requires some groups to be on top and others to be at the bottom”, and “Some groups of people are simply inferior to other groups”. The resulting score indicates the respondent’s “social dominance orientation” or SDO (Follow this link to discover your SDO).Participants in the survey were also asked about their environmental “intentions”, whether, for example, they would sign a petition in support of environmental protection, or try to reduce their carbon footprint by cycling or walking instead of driving.

The survey found a clear association between SDO and environmental intentions – a high SDO made a person less likely to take pro-environment actions. In other words, people who hold altruistic values (or are strong on compassion) and who want to achieve equality in society tend to be more concerned about the environment. Although this is a descriptive finding, the scale of the study from which it comes makes it quite robust.

Perhaps working to make a society more egalitarian could be a way of strengthening its member’s connection to nature as well as their commitment to environmental protection. An idea worth thinking about, I believe.

The study of nature’s effects on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour is now pushing into very exciting territory – the working human brain.

In a landmark study published in 2010, a team of Korean researchers compared activity in the brains of 28 adults, both males and females, while they were viewing coloured photos of urban and natural scenes. The technology used, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), revealed the parts of the brain that were most active under the two viewing conditions. When urban scenes were being viewed, activity was located in regions of the brain, notably the amygdala, that are associated with stress, anxiety and impulsiveness. In contrast, natural scenes lit up regions, such as the anterior cingulate gyrus and insula, that regulate empathy and altruistic behaviour.

Similar links between nature and human emotions have been demonstrated in a host of psychological studies, but the Korean study provides the kind of “hard” physiological evidence that science prefers. I believe, in fact, that the two markedly different patterns of brain activity described in the study allow us to speak of an “urban brain” and a “nature brain”.

With additional hard evidence from recent work at the University of Edinburgh to hand, my belief is strengthened. Researchers there took advantage of technology that enables brain function to be monitored while a person is in “real” rather than artificial laboratory settings. The technology uses a “skull cap” housing electrodes that detect the brain’s different bands of electromagnetic activity – alpha waves indicating restful andUrban vs rural brain emotiv_epoc_600 relaxed alertness, for example, Beta waves when the brain is busy processing information or Delta waves, which   indicate deep restfulness when they are present, or restless and agitation when they are suppressed.

Information from the electrodes is transmitted to a computer where very smart emotion-detection software interprets it and delivers a moment by moment picture of the person’s state of mind. The emotions measured are excitement, arousal, frustration (as when coping with a challenging task), alertness and meditation.

In one study, the Edinburgh group sent 20 skull-cap fitted students on a walk that took them through both urban and green precincts. In the urban settings, the students’ brains were more busy and alert, whereas walking in green spaces was associated with higher meditation and lower arousal, alertness and frustration. Interestingly, very similar results were obtained when the Edinburgh team repeated the study using photos to simulate exposure to urban and green environments.

Here we have clear evidence that nature is writing a script for our brain. Certainly, life experiences contribute massively to the same script, especially to its intellectual or “overlying” content. But nature makes its impact on the script’s emotional or “underlying” substance, which exercises a powerful influence on virtually every aspect of our learning and thinking as well as our feelings, attitudes and values. In the human evolutionary story, adaptation and behaviour were controlled by the emotions long before the intellect emerged. And the primacy of emotions remains in the makeup of all of us. This is so, despite our (recently evolved) capacity for wisdom, problem solving, rationality, innovation and creativity. We may be creators of complex and sophisticated cultures but nature, via our emotions, holds our intellect and our cultures on a leash.

The most prWilson Kellert The Biophilia hypothesisofound, pervasive and powerful expression of nature’s scripting of our brains is expressed in the emotion-driven disposition we all have to engage with the natural world. Known as biophillia, this disposition arises from a complex mix of emotional, sensory, cognitive and physical components. It is also a fragile disposition that flourishes only when it is nurtured in and through the regular experience of nature.

When nurtured, biophilia delivers an amazing range of benefits (I like to refer to them as gifts) for human well-being. In my book, I refer to these benefits as “gifts”.

The book encourages its readers to claim these gifts and explains how this can be done – even by busy urban dwellers. But I am realist enough to accept that many people genuinely believe that they lack the time, resources, CYW_Cover_finalopportunities or capabilities to become “nature persons”.

The perception that time for nature and leisure time generally are in short supply is widely held. Unfortunately, there is some basis to this view. In his book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, Rutger Bregman speaks of increased leisure time as “the forgotten dream”. From the mid-19th century through the first three quarters of the 20th, increased productivity and economic expansion were accompanied by reductions in working hours. But from in the 1980s, “workweek reductions came to a grinding halt”.

Economic growth was translated not into more leisure, but into more stuff. In countries like Australia, Austria, Norway, Spain, and England, the workweek stopped shrinking altogether. In the U.S. it actually grew..

But that’s not all. Even in countries that have seen a reduction in the individual workweek, families have nevertheless become more pressed for time.

The reason for this pressure, Bregman explains, is the feminist revolution, which among other things has seen women throng to the ranks of the paid workforce. This did not mean that men worked less (and helped more in the home), quite the contrary. Couples in the 1950s worked a combined total of five to six days a week; now it’s closer to seven or eight. At the same time parenting has become much more time-intensive. Working mothers in the U.S. spend more time with their children than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1950s.

There has been another development as well – work and leisure have become increasingly entangled – largely as a consequence of communication technologies such as the Ipad, laptop and smartphone breaching the boundary between home and work.

All of these trends are increasing the burden of work. What is more, they are fostering the closely related beliefs that “time is money”, that leisure is simply too expensive and that working less would result in a fall in living standards. Bregman’s book exposes the fallacy of these beliefs along with many of the pet tenets of materialist and economic rationalist ideology.

I had to agree with my friend (and super talent), Tory Hughes’s, recent remark to me that many people need to be reassured that it’s OK to set aside time for leisure generally and for leisure in nature in particular.

No amount of work can do for your brain what nature can.