Interview with Professor Miles Richardson, University of Derby

Rathbone Greenbank interviewed Professor Miles Richardson of the University of Derby, who established the Nature Connectedness Research Group (NCRG) in 2013 to explore how relationships between people and the natural world could be improved for the benefit of both.

Q – What is ‘nature connectedness’ and why is it important?

Nature connectedness is about people’s relationship with nature. More specifically, it’s a recognised psychological construct for measuring our relationship with the natural world, either in terms of a cognitive belief in our ‘place’ in nature or our emotional attachment and responses to it. Because nature connectedness is measurable, we’re able to scientifically evaluate people’s relationships with nature and the benefits they draw from them.

These calculations are important because there’s no social or individual wellbeing without nature’s wellbeing. Environmental emergencies such as climate warming and biodiversity loss can be traced back to the human relationship with nature, this shows, broadly speaking, that this relationship is failing. Our aim is therefore to create new, improved relationships with the natural world that address our most pressing social and environmental concerns and encourage pro-environmental and pro-nature conservation behaviours. Importantly, these tangible improvements can have a positive cumulative effect on mental wellbeing.

Q – What are the measurable social and environmental benefits of nature connectedness?

Interest in nature connectedness has grown rapidly since 2012, such that we’ve compiled enough data to conduct systematic reviews evidencing measurable benefits to both nature and people. The first of these reviews was published last year. One paper published by the Simon Fraser University in Canada pulled together 92 studies involving over 27,000 people and found a strong and robust association between nature connectedness and pro-environmental behaviours. Encouragingly, it also found a causal relationship between strong individual connections to the natural world and increased pro-conservation activity. Our individual actions play their part in addressing environmental concerns, so evidence of that causal link is important.

Systematic reviews have also shown that nature connectedness has a positive impact on two broad forms of personal wellbeing: feeling good (in terms of vitality and happiness) and functioning well, with a strong sense of meaning or purpose. Our recent statistical research with Natural England and almost 5,000 participants across the country showed that nature connectedness explained a worthwhile life nearly four times more than higher socio-economic status.

A strong relationship with nature therefore really matters to our mental wellbeing, more so than simply visiting natural places. While contact with nature is an important stimulus for physical wellbeing, connectedness points to a deeper emotional relationship and immersion of the self in nature. Alongside a greater appreciation for nature, nature connectedness also propels us  to take positive action to create new habitats and support wildlife development.

Q – How might businesses benefit from a closer relationship with nature?

Businesses have programmes to support their employees’ mental wellbeing and we’ve created some simple interventions that people can fit into their working day. One straightforward example is to encourage employees to observe and record three good things in nature every day. Our research tells us that noticing the good things in nature has a strong positive impact on mental wellbeing, so businesses can enhance that benefit by bringing a little bit of nature closer to their employees, creating opportunities to notice and enjoy it. Even a brief connection can make a significant difference. Think moments with nature, not minutes. For more information, please visit Nature Notes – an app for noticing the good things in nature. 

Through our work with the National Trust, we’ve found the simple moments, listening to bird song or watching a tree in the breeze, are important for wellbeing and pro-nature behaviours - which is an additional benefit for businesses working to improve their sustainability profiles.

Q – If you could attract more investment into your research field, what would you like to see it fund and why?

I’d like to expand our research themes to understand more about nature connectedness and how to improve people’s relationship with nature – this, after all, is still a relatively new area of work. One interesting result from last year’s research was the evidence of a significant drop in nature connectedness among adolescents that can take around 20 years to recover to population means which still aren’t high enough for a sustainable future. We need to understand how this impacts on thoughts and actions around acting sustainably during adolescence and into later life, so it would be interesting to explore how we might reconnect young people to nature through the distractions of their teenage years!

The links to wellbeing and the increased sense of a worthwhile life are also worth exploring in greater depth. When the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems (IPBES) published its 2019 report on the global state of nature, panel chair Sir Robert Watson focused primarily on the definition of what made a good life and how we might improve lives globally by connecting more people to nature. If a worthwhile life equates to a nature connected life and a sustainable life, that’s also an attractive link to explore. When nature connectedness shows itself to be a greater indicator of individual happiness than the accumulation of consumer goods, what experiences can we develop to help improve everyone’s relationship with the natural world?

There are also some exciting opportunities to broaden our research to a societal level, working with partners to develop large-scale cultural programmes or plan urban and inner-city spaces with nature connectedness at the heart of their design.

Q – How is the Nature Connectedness Research Group responding to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic?

We quickly put together some resources for people who have seen their access to nature restricted during lockdown. Many of our interventions to appreciate the beauty in nature can be explored with a modest amount of access at home. This could be as simple as taking a moment to listen to birdsong from an open window or enjoy the motion and sound of a tree in the wind. We also collaborated with an aid organisation working in Italy, SOS Children’s Villages International, to provide resources for them during their strictest period of lockdown. These included our ‘three good things’ observation strategy, exploring nature connectedness through drawing and art, an audio nature meditation recording, and an immersive exploration of ‘virtual nature’ through videos.

At such a difficult time, it’s been good to apply our nature connectedness research to help people to cope with the emotional strain and counter some of the psychological effects of social isolation – to help people find a friend in nature.

For more information on this subject,  please visit https://findingnature.org.uk