How is nature linked to well-being?  It’s complicated, say researchers

How is nature linked to well-being? It’s complicated, say researchers

In the later years, countless scientific studies – and media reports – have highlighted the benefits of nature for improved well-being. But as it turns out, there is more to the scientific literature than the headlines suggest.

In an article published Friday in the journal The progress of scienceresearchers have reviewed hundreds of studies on the “cultural ecosystem services” nature provides for well-being, which is a fancy way of referring to the non-tangible – i.e. non-economic – impacts nature has on people

Their meta-review reveals far more complex links between nature and well-being than the well-trodden narratives surrounding nature and better mental health. By taking a closer look at the existing scientific literature, the researchers suggest that we can create better guidelines that take into account how different groups of people interact with the environment and the intangible benefits they get from spending time in nature.

“In this paper we not only identify the different [cultural ecosystem services]but we go deeper to find how they are linked to different aspects of human well-being, says Alexandros Gasparatos. Reverse. Gasparatos is a co-author on the paper and an associate professor of sustainability science at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), University of Tokyo.

How they did it – In their review, the researchers considered more than 300 scientific articles to draw certain conclusions about nature’s cultural ecosystem services and their impact on human well-being.

Cultural ecosystem services refer to “non-material and often intangible contributions from nature to people,” explains Gasparatos.

These intangible contributions can include recreation and leisure, accumulation of knowledge, spiritual satisfaction, community building, finding a “sense of place” in the outdoors, and “aesthetic experiences” (so yes, taking selfies in a scenic forest for the ‘gram would probably count). It is a way of looking at nature beyond the material and economic benefits that we derive from it.

A figure from the study shows the connections between cultural ecosystem services and well-being. The thickness or width of each line is related to how often this relationship appears in the scientific literature. Huynh et al

What they found – After studying this vast body of scientific literature, the researchers concluded that there are more than 200 “unique links” or pathways between cultural and ecosystem services and well-being.

The researchers were then able to narrow these links down to 68 pathways. Of the 68 roads, 45 positively and 23 negatively affected people’s well-being.

It may seem surprising that nature can harm well-being, but if you’ve ever been engulfed by a smelly plant or been afraid to walk alone through a spooky forest, then you’ve experienced one of these negative interactions. Very few studies have systematically analyzed the negative links between nature’s cultural ecosystem services and well-being.

Through further analysis, the researchers found that there were four different ways in which people usually interacted with nature. These include:

  1. Cultural practices – Opportunities to create, train and collect natural products
  2. Intellectual practice — Gain new knowledge
  3. Spiritual practice – Religious activities that take place through nature
  4. Form — Engaging with nature through physical and tangible actions

The researchers also categorized these interactions by the “mechanism” or nature of the experience. Let’s say that spending time in nature inspires you to draw or paint – that would be a “creative” experience. While someone looking up at a high mountain and experiencing an overwhelmingly powerful force would experience a “transcendent” experience, defined in the paper as “the benefits that lie beyond the ordinary experiences and the ordinary physical realm, more often associated with religious or spiritual values ​​via interaction with nature.”

In total, the researchers identified 16 different types of mechanisms spanning the spectrum of human encounters with nature. The complex nature of these interactions surprised the researchers.

“The mechanisms and pathways are many more than we first thought,” says Gasparatos.

Some of these paths have “trade-offs” with each other – and not always in good ways. A good example is the balance between recreation and leisure – i.e. tourism – and spiritual practice. Tourists may enjoy a weekend trip into the wilderness, but they may also step on sacred land traditionally used for indigenous spiritual activities. Tourism can also lead to the development of certain areas, which leads to environmental degradation and the loss of indigenous knowledge related to the local ecosystem.

Finally, Gasaparatos says that the existing research suggests that the “intrinsic” connections to nature, such as the sense of community we get from being with others in nature or the knowledge we gain about the natural world, have a stronger impact on people’s well-being than the monetary benefits nature provides for economic production.

The study analyzes the existing scientific literature to draw conclusions about the links between “cultural ecosystem services” – the intangible effects of nature as community building – and human well-being. Getty

Why it is important – The new paper finds that humans interact with nature in complex ways – perhaps more than we previously understood – but what is the biggest impact?

First: the study shows how we have often overlooked certain connections to nature – such as its importance in cultural practice or indigenous knowledge – in popular discourse while focusing mostly on the obvious mental health benefits of spending time outdoors.

Gasparatos says the selective focus likely stems from the fact “that health is much more prominent in the public debate than other aspects such as sense of place or culture.”

Furthermore, studies that focus on the cultural and intellectual connections to nature are usually focused on specific communities or “ethnographies”, which has made them more difficult to quantitatively assess and communicate to a wider audience.

Second: Gasparatos and his co-researchers did not find these connections in nature themselves, but they were able to extract them from the existing scientific literature in a way that did not exist before.

“What we’re doing here is systematizing the literature in a very new way that allows us to somehow compare these benefits between studies,” explains Gasaparatos.

Ultimately, this research can improve environmental design and ecosystem management by helping people in positions of power understand these complex connections between nature and human well-being.

For example, if a city official wants to install green spaces to improve the physical and mental well-being of urban residents, they can look at the specific “pathways” associated with this goal and design green spaces accordingly—such as implementing landscape designs that have a calming effect to reduce stress or natural elements that appeal to the senses.

What’s next – Still, there are significant gaps in the nature and well-being connection that existing scientific literature has yet to address, according to the paper.

“One of the knowledge gaps we have identified is that the existing literature focuses mainly on individual well-being, and lacks a focus on collective – community – well-being,” says Gasparatos.

To fill this gap, the research team intends to conduct a “multiscale well-being assessment” based on the findings of this recent paper. Their future research will assess the impact on the well-being of residents in diverse environments, ranging from dense Tokyo to a “rapidly urbanizing” area in Central Vietnam where coastal ecosystems are being transformed for tourism.

The project will serve as “a logical follow-up to test how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms play out in reality and intersect with human well-being,” Gasparatos concludes.

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