Nature connectedness has been defined as a sense of oneness with nature, or a sustained awareness of our interrelatedness with the rest of nature. It is tied to the sense of belonging to the wider natural world as part of a larger community of nature and our own wellbeing.
Being in nature has been described as a basic psychological human need and is strongly associated with well-being, with one recent study reporting that nature connectedness is four times more important than socio-economic status for well-being that encompasses life feeling like it is worthwhile and has meaning.
Nature connectedness also acts as an important mediator for some of the benefits to mood and cognition obtained by spending time in nature, while also being associated with increased contact with it, which is associated with further additive benefits to well-being.
It is also strongly associated with pro-environmental concern and behaviour. Research has revealed a number of pathways to nature connectedness, including contact with nature, emotion, compassion, finding meaning, and appreciating beauty in nature.
While very important, on a broad scale, nature connectedness appears to be in decline. This appears to be being driven by what has been termed the ‘extinction of experience’ or a diminished capacity for day-to-day interactions with nature.
This is being fuelled by increasing urbanisation and biodiversity loss. In addition, increasing usage of electronic entertainment technology and smart phones appears to exacerbating this disconnect. This makes the capacity of increasing nature connectedness all the more important.
How to Connect to Nature
There are a number of research-backed practices that can enhance our connection to nature, with all the associated benefits to mental health this can yield. Some, such as wilderness retreats and nature-based educational programmes, are time and resource heavy.
There are a number of simple and enjoyable practices that take up very little time and can easily be incorporated into a busy life schedule – these can also be used alongside one another, as they are likely to synergise.
Some of these practices may appear deceptively simple – they ae all centred on taking the time to simply acknowledge nature. It takes little time – event moments noticing nature are important.
‘Good things in nature’ exercise:
Nature-based journaling has been shown to foster sustained increases in nature connectedness. In this practice, you simply note down a sentence describing anything you encounter in nature that you enjoyed. Anything beautiful, captivating, intriguing or thought provoking.
The original study called for recording three things over a five day period. Instead, you may wish to record a single item (or multiple items) over an extended time period as and when you please. You are encouraged to record any observations as and when they occur on a day to day basis.
The control group in this study recorded factual things about nature instead – and no change in their nature connectedness was found. This highlights that nature connectedness is primarily experiential and emotional, rather than rational or knowledge based.
Every week, look back over your list of recordings. Which of the things you recorded do you recall? How do you recall them; in words or images? Do you remember other things that have you not recorded? Has writing affected your experience of the natural world in other ways? What kind of things did you record? Does this reflect your interests in nature? Were you surprised by anything? Has your mood changed over the course of the week?
‘Noticing nature’ exercise:
Similar to the previous exercise, this practice is about acknowledging nature. The original study found that acknowledgement of nature catalysed connection in a broad sense, not just to nature, but also to self and others, this being an important aspect of good mental health.
Be mindful when walking in natural settings, and when encountering an object or scene that evokes a strong emotional reaction. How does it make you feel? Take a photo of it if you wish, and make a brief note of any of the emotions evoked.
The original study called for a minimum of 10 photos/records over a two week period, but it is really up to the individual to go at their own pace. Quality of the photos isn’t important here, but rather the emotional reaction evoked by natural objects or scenes encountered. There are local wildlife groups on Facebook for people who might wish to share images with others.
Tuning into nature
Walking barefoot in nature has been found to increase nature connectedness, at least in the short term, by enhancing sensory contact with nature. Shinrin Yoku, or Japanese forest bathing, is an active nature-based mindfulness based practice which also holds promise, by encouraging people to slow down and tune into their various senses in natural settings, with mindfulness and nature connectedness having a synergistic relationship.
Awe and connectedness are strongly linked. Awe walks are a very simple exercise where people are encouraged to take a walk attending to the details of the world around them and to tap into their childlike sense of wonder.
A recent study showed that a once weekly 15 minute awe walk increased positive prosocial emotions and facilitated decreases in mental distress in people’s day to day emotional state over time, so helping to foster social connection and reduce negative emotions.
In addition, the more people sought out awe, the more they experienced over time. Awe is associated with a broad array of psychological health benefits, and is commonly associated with experiences in nature.
Awe is more likely to occur in places that involve two key features – physical vastness and novelty. Try and tap into your childlike sense of wonder at the word. During your walk, try to approach what you see with fresh eyes, imagining that you’re seeing it for the first time. Take a moment in each walk to take in the vastness of things, for example in looking at a panoramic view or up close at the detail of a leaf or flower.
Try and seek out new locations – but if walking a familiar route, try and be mindful of different aspects of it. Try to maintain a fairly light to moderate pace while walking – no speed walking or jogging. Keep your phone on silent, and abstain from using it, listening to music or talking during the duration of the walk.
Wildlife watching and biodiversity enhancement
Watching wildlife and bird watching is another pathway to a deepened connection to nature. Living in proximity to more birds has been associated with a lower prevalence of depression, anxiety, and stress, with one studyfinding that diversity of birds within people’s vicinity was as important for people’s happiness as their financial security.
Research has revealed that certain nature conservation actions which enhance visible biodiversity in one’s vicinity lead to an increase in noticing nature, which in turn leads to an increase in nature connectedness.
Biodiversity enhancing actions include things like digging a pond, sowing a patch of wildflowers, or native tree planting. A bird feeder can also attract a range of different bird species. If one doesn’t have a garden, growing plants at home is a great way of bringing nature indoors.
To delve into how to deepen one’s connection to nature further, check out this free online course put out by the Nature Connectedness Research Group at the University of Derby.
Contact with nature is a highly underutilised and undervalued health promoting resource, and by pushing back against the growing trend of disconnection and deepening our connection with the natural world, there is the potential for synergistic improvements in human and planetary health.
Albert Hofmann, the chemist who invented and discovered LSD, came to feel that perhaps the most fundamental role of psychedelics was to act as agents to aid in our (re)connection with the natural world. In his words: “Go to the meadows, go to the garden, go to the woods. Open your eyes!”
Sam has a PhD in ecological science from the University of Aberdeen and an MRes in entomology from Imperial College London. His research is focused on the capacity of psychedelics to (re)connect our increasingly disconnected species to nature, for the potential betterment of humanity and the biosphere at large.