In the last years, countless scientific studies—and media reports—have advocated the benefits of nature for improving 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 magazine Advances in 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 intangible—that is, noneconomic—impacts that nature has on people.
Their meta-review reveals much more complex connections between nature and well-being than the well-trodden 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 receive from spending time in nature.
“In this document, we are not simply identifying the different ones [cultural ecosystem services]but we go deeper to find how they are related to different aspects of human well-being,” says Alexandros Gasparatos. Vice versa. Gasparatos is a co-author of the paper and an associate professor of sustainability science at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), University of Tokyo.
How did they – In their review, the researchers evaluated more than 300 scientific papers to draw certain conclusions about nature’s cultural ecosystem services and their impact on human well-being.
Cultural ecosystem services refer to “nature’s intangible and often intangible contributions to humans,” explains Gasparatos.
These intangible contributions can include fun and leisure, knowledge gathering, spiritual fulfillment, community building, finding a “sense of place” in nature, and “aesthetic experiences” (so, yes, taking selfies in a forest picturesque for “gram” count). It is a way of looking at nature beyond the material and economic benefits we derive from it.
What did they find – After studying this large 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 scientists were then able to narrow these connections down to 68 pathways. Of the 68 pathways, 45 positively impacted and 23 negatively impacted human well-being.
It may seem strange that nature can harm well-being, but if you’ve ever been possessed by a smelly plant or been scared walking alone through a spooky forest, then you’ve experienced one of those negative interactions. Very few studies have systematically analyzed the negative associations between nature cultural ecosystem services and well-being.
Through further analysis, scientists discovered that there were four different ways that humans typically interact with nature. This includes:
- Cultural practices – Opportunities to create, exercise and collect natural products
- Intellectual practices — Gaining new knowledge
- Spiritual practices – Religious activities that take place through nature
- Form – Engaging with nature through physical and tangible actions
Scientists also categorized these interactions according to 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. Whereas someone looking up at a high mountain and experiencing an extremely powerful force would experience a “transcendent” experience, defined in the paper as “benefits that lie beyond ordinary experiences and the regular physical realm, most often associated with with religion or spiritual values through interaction with nature.”
In total, the researchers identified 16 different types of mechanisms that span the range of human encounters with nature. The complex nature of these interactions surprised researchers.
“The mechanisms and the pathways are much more than we first thought”, says Gasparatos.
Some of these paths have “exchanges” with each other – and not always in good ways. A good example is the trade-off between recreation and leisure – eg, tourism – and spiritual practices. Tourists may enjoy going for a weekend hike in the desert, but they may also be trespassing on sacred land traditionally used for indigenous spiritual activities. Tourism can also lead to the development of certain areas, leading to environmental degradation and the loss of indigenous knowledge about the local ecosystem.
Finally, Gasparatos says that existing research suggests that “intrinsic” connections to nature, such as the sense of community we get from being with others in nature or the knowledge we gather about the natural world, have a stronger impact on well-being human than the nature of monetary benefits provides for economic production.
Why does it matter – The new paper proves that humans interact with nature in complex ways – perhaps more than we previously realized – 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 mainly 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”.
Further, studies that focus on cultural and intellectual connections to nature typically focus on specific communities or “ethnographies,” which has made them more difficult to quantify and communicate to a wider audience. wide.
Second: Gasparatos and his fellow researchers didn’t find these connections in nature themselves, but they were able to extract them from the existing scientific literature in a way that didn’t exist before.
“What we do here is systematize the literature in a very novel way that allows us to somehow compare these benefits across studies,” Gasparatos explains.
Finally, 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 physical and mental well-being for urban residents, they can look at the specific “streets” associated with that goal and design green spaces accordingly—like implementing landscape designs that have a calming effect to reduce stress or natural elements that appeal to the senses.
What’s next – However, there are significant gaps in the connection to nature and well-being that the 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 primarily on individual well-being and lacks a focus on collective-community well-being,” says Gasparatos.
To fill this gap, the research team aims to conduct a “multiscale well-being assessment” based on the findings of this latest paper. Their next research will assess the impacts on the well-being of residents in different settings, 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 continuation to test how some of the pathways and mechanisms identified unfold in reality and intertwine with human well-being,” concludes Gasparatos.