As unique as every human is, so is their relationship to Mother Nature. We cultivate relationships to ourselves, friends and family members, how do we do the same for Mother Nature?
Nature connection is one's own sense of their relationship to nature. An awareness of how one relates to and experiences nature. During nature connection activities we use our senses to mindfully engage with nature.
When we have strong feelings of nature connection, we feel a close relationship to nature and have positive emotions to our natural surroundings. Conversely, weak feelings of nature connection, leave us feeling disconnected and ambivalent to the natural world.
Let's look at a few examples. Compare two people:
It's likely that the second person has higher levels of nature connection: a stronger relationship with nature. They spend time in natural surroundings and use their senses to experience nature.
Let's consider a third example.
A middle-aged person who spends several hours a week exercising in a local park. During exercising their thoughts are often on the activity or worries about work. Additionally they love listening to crime podcasts.
In this example, despite their time in nature, they may very well have low levels of nature connectedness. Their time in nature is mindless. Their attention is focussed on their exercise, work or crime podcast. Not focussed on nature. In the same way we develop strong relationships with people through sharing mindful experiences, it's mindful moments with nature that contribute to a strong nature relationship. Nature connection cannot simply be measure by time in nature. It's an active process.
Nature connection boils down to do we feel separate from nature or are we part of it.
All this talk of nature connection and if you're being mindful or not – why does it matter at all? Can't I just walk in nature as I damn well please. Well… yes, yes you can. But consider this, numerous studies show the benefits of deeply connecting with nature. However you plan to spend time in nature, wouldn't you rather reap the benefits?
Nature Connection benefits can largely be split into two areas. One, the benefits for the individual which include emotional, mental and physical benefits. And two, the benefits for the planet.
Becoming more nature connected gives us, as an individual, a number of physical and psychological benefits.
People with strong nature connection report life being more worthwhile. They have higher life satisfaction. Imagine really noticing the seasons change. A tree you've known for years, an old friend really, blossoming in spring, full in summer, golden in autumn and resting in winter.
Stronger nature connectedness is also associated with lower levels of common mental health issues. For example, depression and anxiety levels.
Physical benefits of nature connection are supported by science too. Physical benefits include stress response reduction and enhanced immune system functioning.
Nature is a significant trigger for the self-transcendent state of awe. The feeling of awe has its own collection of psychological benefits including increased feelings of connectedness to people and planet, humility, increase open-mindedness and mood boosts.
People with higher levels of nature connection tend to have pro-environmental attitudes and ultimately take pro-environmental action.
Humans have a desire to protect what we love. Once we fall in love with nature we will desire to protect it. When you develop an emotional attachment to the sight of a beautiful valley, you'll fight against proposals to open a new destructive quarry within it.
Furthermore, when we see ourselves as part of nature, we realise that harming the environment ultimately harms ourselves. A simplified example of this is recognising our symbiotic relationship with trees and plants. When we destroy trees and plants we are reducing the number of organisms that make our air breathable.
Remember that nature connectedness refers to one's own sense of their relationship to nature. As a subjective matter it is difficult to measure. However, psychologists have created a measure to grade people's sense of nature connection.
The Nature Connection Index asks people to assess a series of six statements. People respond with how strongly they agree or disagree with the statements.
Those nature connection statements are…
Each statement-response has a corresponding score and, when tallied, give a nature connection score that can be compared. The higher the score the higher level of nature connectedness.
The good news for those that aren't so nature connected is that nature connection can be cultivated. Researchers have found five distinct pathways to strengthening our relationship with nature (Lumber, Richardson & Sheffield, 2017).
Being mindful in nature is all about tapping into our senses to experience the richness of nature. Pause and take mindful moments when in nature to observe each of the five senses: sound, touch, smell, taste and sight. Each individual experience can be observed and broken down into further experiences.
Standing in a forest, you'll feel the breeze on your body, which parts of your body are warm or cold? Is the breeze strong or light?
Listen to the birdsong, which direction are the birds coming from? Is there a rhythm or pattern to the song?
Smell flowers you pass, is there fragrance strong or light? How sweet is the flower compared to others?
The complexity of the experience is as full as you wish to make it. You can go deeper.
Being in nature brings out positive emotions. Nature sparks emotions like joy, calmness and gratitude. Learn to recognise these pleasant emotions. If you have deeper meditation experience you could lean in to those emotions and observe the physical associations within your body.
Humans have evolved with nature. Recognising beauty within nature aided our ancestors survival. Celebrating this human ability by noting and expressing what you find beautiful in nature develops our nature connection. Make music inspired by the sounds of nature. Or paint phenomenal sights you witness.
Nature is pervasive across all aspects of life. Artists paint beautiful scenery, poets twist metaphors, stories contains nature-inspired characters. Pay closer attention to how we use language about nature to express ourselves verbally, literary or artistically. In turn this will bring greater meaning to your time in nature. Which in turn will help you play closer attention to the nature influences in our human world.
What can you to do for nature? In the same way you act compassionately towards friends, family and strangers, do compassionate acts toward nature. Clear up litter, leave food out for hungry winter birds, choose eco-friendly products, cycle to work instead of driving.
Note that none of these pathways are knowledge based activities. For example, learning the names of plants or understanding animal lifecycles. Knowledge based activities were not found to increase nature connection.
As an individual we can adopt habits and practices that cultivate each of those pathways. Consider your daily and weekly routines. How can you thread these pathways through your actions?
In relation to nature connection, technology usage is counter intuitive.
Collectively, we're becoming more aware of our digital wellbeing. This is a good thing. The constant bombardment of notifications and messages often cause distraction. The pulsing LED snaps us out of the present moment. A loud vibration of a bedside mobile phone disrupts a good nights sleep. Time in nature is an opportunity to leave the mobile phone at home and take a welcome mindful break away from the digital world.
In the case you need your pocket companion, modern mobile devices have a "do not disturb" mode: a helpful way to stop your phone from undesirably stealing your attention when being mindful in nature.
However, as with most technology, it's how we use it that's important. After all, technology is just a tool.
Barrable and Booth (2020) conducted a study of mobile usage and nature connection. People who participated in the study were asked to take a short walk in urban nature whilst noting three beautiful things. One group were asked to record those beautiful things through their mobile and the other group weren't. Those who recorded nature through their mobile phones, either by snapping a photo, recording audio or taking a video, experienced equal enhancements in nature connectedness to those that didn't. Mobile phones used in this way, as a tool to record mindful encounters with beautiful nature to enhance and focus attention, didn't hinder people's connection to nature.
Awe, the nature connection app on Android and iPhone, guides us through the nature connection pathways. Awe's nature audio guides helps us be more mindful in nature and open our senses in order to strengthen our relationship with Mother Nature.