How is nature related to well-being? It’s complicated, scientists say

in recent yearsCountless scientific studies, and media reports, have touted the benefits of nature for enhancing well-being. But it turns out that there is more to the scientific literature than the headlines suggest.

In an article published Friday in the magazine Progress of scienceThe researchers reviewed hundreds of studies on the “cultural ecosystem services” that nature provides for well-being, which is a fancy way of referring to the non-tangible, that is, non-economic, impacts that nature has on humans.

His meta-review reveals much more complex links between nature and well-being than hackneyed narratives about nature and better mental health. By taking a closer look at the existing scientific literature, the researchers suggest we can design better policies that take into account how different groups of people interact with the environment and the intangible benefits they derive from spending time in nature.

“In this document, we are not simply identifying the different [cultural ecosystem services]but we dig deeper to find how they relate to different aspects of human well-being”, says Alexandros Gasparatos Reverse. Gasparatos is a co-author of the paper and an associate professor of sustainability sciences at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo.

How they did it? In their review, the researchers evaluated 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 the “non-material and often intangible contributions of nature to humans”, explains Gasparatos.

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

A figure from the study shows the links between cultural ecosystem services and well-being. The thickness or width of each line is related to how often this connection 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.

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The scientists were then able to narrow these links down to 68 pathways. Of the 68 roads, 45 positively impacted and 23 negatively impacted human well-being.

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

Through further analysis, the scientists discovered that there were four different ways people typically interacted with nature. These include:

  1. Cultural practices — Opportunities to create, exercise and collect natural products
  2. Intellectual practices: acquiring new knowledge
  3. Spiritual practices: religious activities that take place through nature.
  4. Form — Engaging with nature through physical and tangible actions

Scientists also classified these interactions by “mechanism” or the nature of the experience. Let’s say that spending time in nature inspires you to draw or paint, that would be a “creative” experience. Whereas someone looking up at a tall mountain and experiencing an overwhelmingly powerful force would be experiencing a “transcendental” experience, defined in the document as “benefits that lie beyond ordinary experiences and the regular physical realm, most often associated with religion or spiritual values ​​through interaction with nature.”

In all, the researchers identified 16 different types of mechanisms that span the gamut of human encounters with nature. The complex nature of these interactions amazed the researchers.

“The mechanisms and pathways are much more than we initially thought,” says Gasparatos.

Some of these pathways have “offsets” for each other, and not always in a good way. A good example is the exchange between recreation and leisure, that is, tourism, and spiritual practices. Tourists may enjoy a weekend hike in the desert, but they may also be trampling on sacred land traditionally used for indigenous spiritual activities. Tourism can also lead to the development of certain areas, leading to environmental degradation and loss of indigenous knowledge related to the local ecosystem.

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Finally, Gasaparatos says that existing research suggests that “internal” connections with nature, such as the sense of belonging to the community that we get from being with others outdoors or the knowledge that we gain about the natural world, have a greater impact. stronger on human welfare than the monetary benefits that 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, such as building communities) and human well-being. Getty

Why does it matter? The new article establishes 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 practices or indigenous knowledge, in popular discourse while focusing primarily on the obvious mental health benefits of spending time outdoors. fresh air.

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

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

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

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

Ultimately, this research could improve environmental design and ecosystem management by helping people in positions of power understand these complex links 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, he or she can look at the specific “pathways” connected to 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.

Whats Next – Still, there are significant gaps in the connection between nature and well-being that the existing scientific literature has yet to address, according to the paper.

“One of the knowledge gaps that we 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 that gap, the research team intends to conduct a “multi-scale wellness assessment” based on the findings of this recent article. His future research will assess the impacts on the well-being of residents in different settings, 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 pathways and mechanisms identified develop in reality and intersect with human well-being,” concludes Gasparatos.

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