In the last years, countless scientific studies—and media reports—tout the benefits of nature for improving well-being. But as it turns out, there’s more to the scientific literature than the headlines suggest.
In an article published Friday in the journal Scientific progressresearchers 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, non-economic – impacts that nature has on people
Their meta-review reveals much more complex connections between nature and well-being than 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 paper, we do not simply identify the different ones [cultural ecosystem services]but we are going deeper to discover how they relate to different aspects of human well-being,” explains Alexandros Gasparatos On the contrary. 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 do it – 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 the “intangible and often intangible contributions of nature to humans,” explains Gasparatos.
These intangible contributions can include recreation and leisure, knowledge acquisition, spiritual fulfillment, community building, finding a “sense of place” outdoors, and “aesthetic experiences” (so yes, taking selfies in a scenic forest for a gram probably would count). It is a way of looking at nature beyond the material and economic benefits we derive from it.
What did they find – After examining this extensive 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 affected and 23 negatively affected human well-being.
It may seem surprising that nature can harm well-being, but if you’ve ever been disgusted by a smelly plant or dreaded walking alone through a ghostly forest, then you’ve experienced one of these negative interactions. Very few studies have systematically analyzed the negative relationships between nature’s cultural ecosystem services and well-being.
Through further analysis, the scientists discovered that there are four distinct ways in which humans typically interact with nature. They include:
- Cultural practices — Opportunities to create, exercise and gather natural products
- Intellectual practices — Acquiring new knowledge
- Spiritual Practices — Religious activities that take place through nature
- Form — Engaging with nature through physical and tangible actions
Scientists also categorize 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. While someone looking up at a high mountain and experiencing an incredibly powerful force would experience a “transcendent” experience, defined in the article as “the benefits that lie beyond ordinary experiences and the ordinary physical realm, more often associated with religious or spiritual values through interaction with nature.”
In total, the researchers identified 16 different types of mechanisms spanning the range of human encounters with nature. The complex nature of these interactions has amazed researchers.
“There are a lot more mechanisms and pathways than we originally thought,” says Gasparatos.
Some of these paths have “trade-offs” with each other – and not always in good ways. A good example is the trade-off between recreation and free time – i.e. tourism – and spiritual practices. Tourists may enjoy a weekend walk in the desert, but they may also be treading on sacred land traditionally used for spiritual activities by the local population. Tourism can also lead to the development of certain areas, leading to environmental degradation and the loss of local knowledge related to the local ecosystem.
Finally, Gassaparatos says that existing research suggests that “intrinsic” connections to nature, such as the sense of community we get from being with others outdoors or the knowledge we gather about the natural world, have more strong impact on human well-being than the monetary benefits that nature provides for economic output.
Why does it matter – The new paper finds that humans interact with nature in complex ways—perhaps more than we previously understood—but what is the larger 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 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.”
Additionally, studies that focus on cultural and intellectual connections to nature tend to focus on specific communities or “ethnographies,” making them more difficult to quantify and communicate to a wider audience.
Second: Gasparatos and his fellow researchers didn’t discover these connections in nature on their own, but they were able to extract them from the existing scientific literature in a way that hadn’t existed before.
“What we’re doing here is systematizing the literature in a very novel way that allows us to somehow compare these benefits across studies,” explains Gasaparatos.
Finally, this research can improve environmental design and ecosystem management by helping those in 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 city residents, they can look at the specific “pathways” associated with that goal and design green spaces accordingly—like implementing landscape design that it has a calming effect to reduce stress or natural elements that appeal to the senses.
What next – Still, there are significant gaps in the relationship between nature and well-being that the existing scientific literature has yet to address, according to the paper.
“One of the knowledge gaps 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 this gap, the research team intends to conduct a “multiscale well-being assessment” based on the findings in this recent paper. Their future research will assess the impact on the well-being of residents in a variety of environments, ranging from densely populated Tokyo to a “rapidly urbanizing” area in Central Vietnam where coastal ecosystems are being transformed for tourism.
The project will serve as “a logical extension to test how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms unfold in reality and intersect with human well-being,” concludes Gasparatos.