In today’s age of high technology, research shows that our hunger for the natural world still endures. In fact, our connections with nature could just be the best medicine for people of all ages—improving our health, happiness, and well-being. Those same connections could also heal the planet.
Few would disagree that our natural and cognitive worlds have grown disconnected. Most of us, particularly children, spend far less time in nature today than in recent decades. There are no required classes in nature connectedness in our schools, nor is nature a well-utilized tool for teaching kids to critically think about the world around them. New research, however, suggests our relationship with nature may be deeply linked to our happiness.
We don’t have to look far into history to know that humans evolved in natural settings and were deeply connected to their ecological environments. In the 18th century, poet and writer, Samuel Johnson, wisely stated, “Deviation from nature is deviation from happiness.” Could those natural settings not only become an avenue by which we find happiness in the 21st century, but also provide new psychological insights that help motivate generations toward environmental sustainability?
Several particularly interesting studies were published recently in Environment and Behavior by John Zelenski and Elizabeth Nisbet. Not surprisingly, the studies found that our emotional connections with nature are predictive of our attitudes and the choices we make about living sustainable lifestyles. But in addition, the study also found a unique connection between nature and happiness itself.
The Link between Nature and Happiness
Zelenski and Nisbet conducted two studies with one question in mind: Is the link between nature and happiness independent from the other things that make us feel emotionally connected to life, like family, country, culture, music, and friends?
In the first study, they measured people’s feelings of connectedness across many spheres, including nature. They called the concept of how we emotionally connect to our natural world nature relatedness. Using a Likert-type scale, 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.”
Other scales and inventories were used to rate people’s subjective happiness across these same areas. The result? Among the various happiness scales, 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.” In other words, the researchers wanted to know if nature stood out from other things that made us feel connected to life and gave us a sense of happiness.
The results of their research suggest that “nature relatedness has a distinct happiness benefit” beyond the more generalized benefit of feeling connected to family, friends, and home. Our connection to nature also correlated with most measures of human well-being, indicating it may play an extremely important role in maintaining positive mental health.
To further understand and expand the findings of the first study, Zelenski and Nisbet conducted a 2nd study. In this study they used well-validated assessments to more deeply explore various connections to happiness, particularly those of an interpersonal quality, including attachment, interdependence, and belongingness. Not only did they hope to replicate the findings from Study 1, but they also wanted to see if nature relatedness could actually predict happiness.
Important Findings on Nature Relatedness
While not every correlation between nature and happiness could be duplicated in the second study, the general pattern of findings and ensuing comparison to past studies led researchers to important conclusions, including:
- 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, and may be an important tool in preserving our environment.
Ecopsychology and the Future of Planet Earth
While these studies provide insightful data on the relationship of nature and happiness, they build on many previous studies that link our health and well-being to the natural world. In fact, a whole new field of ecopsychology has emerged, combining the efforts of ecologists, psychologists, spiritualists, philosophers, and others. The International Community for Ecopsychology says, “Ecopsychology explores the synergistic relation between personal health and well-being and the health and well-being of our home, the Earth.”
Many experts have sounded the alarm about our disconnection from the natural world, from the Industrial Revolution onward. But the Digital Age evokes additional concerns.
Richard Louv, in his award winning book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, linked the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to troubling childhood trends, including the rise of obesity and depression.
A 2005 study by the American Institutes for Research found that kids who learn in outdoor classrooms improve their science scores by 27 percent.
Not only have experts found that outdoor education is critical for child development, it is also important for the future of the planet. Why? Because when we feel connected to nature, we are more likely to live sustainable lifestyles. We are also more likely to support environmental causes that educate and engage others with the natural world.
How should studies like these affect our actions in the world? While I consider myself deeply connected to nature already, these studies motivated me to take a walk in my neighborhood with new eyes. Not only did I engage differently with the many blossoming trees, but I discovered 15 Great Blue Heron nests in a tree within a block of my home. I had been walking by them for days, but had never looked up! The thrill of seeing each nest topped with a large heron definitely increased my happiness! It showed me that there is much more to learn and many more ways to engage with the many living organisms around us.
Let’s get our children and teenagers out in the natural world and engage them with its beauty and vibrant spirit. In the end, it is their and our relationships with nature that will determine our futures.
How would you describe your own connection with nature? Your children’s? Do those relationships with the natural world bring happiness to your lives?
American Institutes for Research (AIR) (2005). Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California. Palo Alto, CA.
Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books.
Zelenski, J. M., & Nisbet, E. K. (2014). Happiness and Feeling Connected The Distinct Role of Nature Relatedness. Environment and Behavior,46(1), 3-23.
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.