Calling the outside world “mother nature” might seem like a cutesy way to demonstrate our reliance on natural resources to thrive. But, in fact, seeing your bond with nature as something much like any close relationship with a person you love (mother or otherwise) can actually benefit your well-being. Specifically, having a high level of what researchers call “nature relatedness,” or feeling emotionally intertwined with nature, is often linked with experiencing more positive emotions overall—even when you’re not outside.
In general, nature relatedness is a subjective sense of having a close or distant relationship with nature, says John Zelenski, PhD, professor of psychology at Carleton University and director of the Carleton University Happiness Laboratory. “It can include physical experiences (like living near or being in nature), emotional elements (say, feeling care and concern for nature) and also an understanding of the close links between people and other parts of nature through evolution and ecosystems,” he says.
To streamline this concept into something they could study, Dr. Zelenski and Elizabeth Nisbet, PhD, professor of psychology at Trent University, developed a brief scale that measures nature relatedness based on how much a person identifies with statements like, “I feel very connected to all living things and the Earth,” and “I take notice of wildlife wherever I am.” And if you’re curious about where you fall on the spectrum, there’s an online version of the scale you can take for free.
People who report stronger connections with nature also report higher levels of well-being, according to John Zelenski, PhD, professor of psychology.
Interestingly, people who report stronger connections with nature aren’t just better stewards of the environment, as you might suspect; they also tend to report higher levels of well-being across various indicators, says Dr. Zelenski, citing research that links nature relatedness with big psychological upsides like experiencing more happiness, as well as more meaning and satisfaction in life. That is, the mental benefit of feeling close to nature, overall, could extend far beyond the temporary mood boost of stepping into sunlight or even taking a lengthy hike.
Why a high level of nature relatedness is connected to more positive emotions
To go back to the “mother nature” idea, researchers suspect that a close tie with nature may be something that we’re hardwired to appreciate. “There is ample data to suggest that having good social relationships is helpful for our psychological and physical health,” says Dr. Zelenski. “Having a ‘good relationship’ with nature, or rather, a sense of close connection to it, may be helpful in a similar way or for similar reasons.”
Because natural resources have forever been an integral part of our survival, much of the benefit we get from connecting with nature is likely evolutionary. “We evolved to want to connect—with people, but also with places and other living things,” says Cindy Frantz, PhD, professor of psychology and environmental studies at Oberlin College & Conservatory. She also makes the analogy between a strong level of nature relatedness and an intimate interpersonal relationship. “Knowing that your partner or best friend exists, even if you’re not in the room with them, can be comforting,” she says. And the same can go for nature: Having a strong emotional tie to it or deep understanding of it as a part of yourself, even when you’re not physically in a natural setting, can be psychologically soothing, too.
It also follows that being more aware of or connected to nature might lead you to draw more elements of nature into your life, says Dr. Zelenski. That could mean buying houseplants, putting up nature-inspired pictures, watching movies about the natural world, or incorporating green or biophilic design into your space. And any of that quasi or virtual exposure to nature could play a role in boosting your well-being, too.
Of course, highly nature-connected people are also more likely to spend more time in, well, nature—particularly, in restorative natural environments. And science has long shown that “spending time in nature is associated with good mood, reduced stress, cognitive restoration, and healthy physiological changes,” says Dr. Zelenski.
How to boost your level of connection to nature
It’s pretty clear that getting intimate with nature is a good thing, all around. But we can’t all just move to a remote natural space or take off into the wilderness for a retreat. Thankfully, the science says there are much more accessible ways to up-level your nature relatedness without necessarily immersing yourself in nature at all times.
First off, it’s helpful to broaden your definition of what nature entails. “Elements of nature can be found almost anywhere,” says Dr. Frantz, referencing the power of simply slowing down to notice something like the wood grain on a piece of furniture or an ant crawling along a sidewalk.
In fact, that mindful approach can go further toward increasing your nature relatedness than simply spending a bunch of time physically in nature while mentally distracted (perhaps by something on your phone or a task you have to do when you get home). “Connection improves more when people take some active steps to notice and connect with nature,” says Dr. Zelenski. “For example, we’ve found that a brief mindfulness instruction really boosts the connection to nature that people feel on a short walk outside.”
Though virtual exposure to nature may certainly help, too—say, learning about an element of nature in a class or by way of a documentary—your best bet is finding any quiet outdoor space (even if it’s not super green or nature-y) to spend some time focused on nothing other than being outside. “It’s really just about paying attention to what you see,” says Dr. Frantz. She also recommends the simple mind trick of trying to imagine all the other living beings on the planet. There’s nothing quite like zooming out to make you remember how much of a tiny speck each of us really is—and how interconnected we all are to the entire web of life.
Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cutting-edge wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.