|White sands walk: Jervis Bay, NSW, Australia|
How important is a constant intercourse with nature and the contemplation of natural phenomena to the preservation of moral and intellectual health! Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 6 May 1851.
Thoreau still speaks eloquently for everyone who feels a need to spend time in the natural environment in order to re-charge their emotional batteries. Recognition of the importance of the natural environment to human happiness now seems to be supported by the findings of social research which show that nature connectedness - identifying with and feeling connected to the natural world – is correlated with happiness. The strength of this relationship is similar to that between happiness and personal income, marital status, volunteering, and personality traits such as conscientiousness and agreeableness.
Formal evidence on links between nature connectedness and happiness has only emerged during the last few years. What I write below is based mainly on a meta-analysis by Colin Capaldi, Raelyne Dopko and John Zelenski published in September last year. In order to be included in the meta-analysis, studies had to include at least one explicit, self-report measure of nature connectedness and at least one measure of happiness and report on their relationship. The meta-analysis covered 30 samples, giving a total sample size of 8523. Most samples came from Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
The meta-analysis showed that the strength of the measured relationship between nature connectedness and happiness was influenced by the way these variables were defined and measured. A measure of inclusion of nature in self had a stronger relationship than other measures of connectedness. Vitality was the happiness concept with the strongest relationship to nature connectedness.
The authors note that correlation between nature connectedness and happiness does not necessarily indicate that nature connectedness causes people to be happier. It is possible that causation might run from happiness to nature connectedness or that some third variable might be responsible for the observed correlation.
However, there is fairly clear evidence from another meta-study (by Diana Bowler et al) that exercise in natural environments promotes greater emotional health benefits – in terms of feelings of energy, and less anxiety, anger, fatigue and sadness - than exercise in an artificial environment. There is also evidence that nature connectedness is positively related with time spend outdoors in contact with nature.
It is possible that some part of the correlation between nature connectedness and happiness is associated with feeling connected. Feeling connected to nature might be similar in that respect to feeling connected with the community. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness is still evident, however, when other connections (e.g. family and culture) are controlled for.
The authors note that the relationship between nature connectedness and some forms of happiness may be adversely affected, to some extent, by a tendency of people who feel connected to nature to be worried about the future of the environment. Such concerns are more likely to dampen positive emotions than eudaimonic measures of happiness because such people are likely to become engaged in pro-environmental behaviours that make their lives seem more meaningful.
There is evidence that feelings of nature connectedness are stronger in some cultures than others and are influenced by early childhood experiences. That suggests to me that causation runs from nature connectedness to happiness, rather than vice versa.