Sustainability scientists at University of Tokyo say they’ve mapped these benefits to reveal 227 distinct pathways in which nature evokes positive responses, as well as a few newly recognized negative ones.
The scientists then grouped these pathways into 16 basic types of human connection with “cultural ecosystem services,” or nonmaterial benefits of nature. These 16 mechanisms include the cognitive, the creative or even the irritative, such as might occur when someone likes the forest but finds wildlife sounds upsetting.
In many cases, more than one of these mechanisms are at work when humans experience time in nature, said the researchers. Their findings, published in the journal Science Advances, is based on a literature review of 301 studies.
These mechanisms are then widely grouped into four main channels. The first, form, describes the physical experience itself when someone feels a sea breeze on their face or sees and smells wildflowers. The second, cultural practice, includes a range of activities based on nature. That may mean a type of exercise, such as hiking, or a hobby like beekeeping or photography.
Intellectual benefits have their own channel in the research, and reflect the value of studying plants or birds, or knowing how to better protect a type of ecosystem. Children, in particular, appear to benefit from nature-based recreation that facilitates growth and equips them with lifelong knowledge and skills.
The fourth channel, spiritual practices, includes the opportunity for religious or nature-based ritual experiences. They might include the value of a historically sacred space to indigenous peoples, or a beloved holiday celebration that integrates specific flowers and trees.
“We knew that there are many linkages, but we were surprised to find quite so many of them,” said graduate student Lam Huynh, who led the University of Tokyo research team. “Then, through further critical reading, we could identify major commonalities.”
Co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the university’s Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), said one of the most intriguing features of the research is how these mechanisms intersect in human experience.
For example, social relationships are reflected in the pathways contributing to connectedness and belonging. But they also originate from a sense of place, as with an urban park or waterway that defines a community’s identity. Or, they may arise from values attached to tourism, in which a mountain or protected conservation area defines a place to which others are attracted too.
“This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be leveraged to provide multiple benefits to human well-being,” said Gasparatos.
The Tokyo team says its work adds to an understanding of how humans interact with nature, apart from economic benefits linked to harvesting or extraction. It’s hoped that a more refined approach can help people and policymakers to better manage natural assets in the urban setting, as well as the biodiversity and ecosystems that affect regions (and in many cases, the entire planet) more broadly.
Huynh notes that more research on community well-being is needed because her team’s work focused on individual benefits. This and other factors may limit what’s known so far about nature and well-being among traditional and indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, they’re beginning new work on how people interact with nature in the urban setting of Tokyo.
“This project is a logical follow-up to test whether and how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms unfold in reality and intersect with human well-being,” Gasparatos said.
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