Nature essential for human wellbeing

Woman standing in tree yoga pose against a beautiful sky
© Inara Prusakova

Studies demonstrate the importance of nature for human wellbeing by linking the nonmaterial contributions of ecosystems to people’s overall health

Ever wondered why we go outside and get some fresh air to feel energised? Or why we go out into our gardens to relax?

A systematic review of 301 academic articles on “cultural ecosystem services” has pointed to the significance of nature on human wellbeing.

The study identified 227 unique instances where humans interact with nature, and how this impacts human wellbeing.

Researchers isolated 16 distinct underlying mechanisms, or types of connection, through which people experience these effects.

The review has helped to unite a fragmented field of research by bringing together a variety of observations. It is hoped that this research could help policymakers better understand the benefit that nature can have on society.

Woman in long blue dress dips her feet into lake
© Siri Wannapat

Cultural ecosystem services

Without nature, humans could not survive. Nature provides clean water, food and useful raw materials and so many other benefits that are difficult to quantify.

Cultural ecosystem services (CESs) is a term used to describe the nonmaterial benefits nature offers humans. Research into CESs has proved crucial to our understanding of these contributions, whether they emerge through recreation and social experiences, or nature’s spiritual value and our sense of place.

Although hundreds of studies have been conducted on CESs and the connection between nature and human wellbeing, they have often used different methods and measurements or focused on different demographics and places.

Fragmentation makes it difficult to identify overarching patterns or commonalities.

Looking for patterns

Graduate student Lam Huynh from the Graduate Program in Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo worked alongside a wider team to try and better understand these patterns. Huynh reviewed 301 academic articles and was able to identify hundreds of links.

We identified 227 unique linkages

“We identified 227 unique linkages between a single CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and a single constituent of human well-being (such as connectedness, spirituality, or health). We knew that there are many linkages, but we were surprised to find quite so many of them.

“Then, through further critical reading, we could identify major commonalities,” Huynh explained.

16 distinct underlying “mechanisms,” or types of connection, were found. There can be both positive and negative mechanisms associated with nature.

Although previous studies had already identified some of these mechanisms, 10 were newly defined, and these included some of the more negative effects. This proves that human well-being is linked to the intangible aspects of nature in many more ways than previously thought.

How can nature negatively impact humans?

Research shows that the negative contributions to human wellbeing came mainly through the degradation or loss of CESs, and through ecosystem “disservices.”

This included individuals who find wildlife noise annoying.

On the other hand, the highest positive contributions of CESs were to both mental and physical health. These came mostly from recreation, tourism and aesthetic value.

Co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo adds: “It is particularly interesting to note that the identified pathways and mechanisms rather than affecting human well-being independently, often interact strongly,

“This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be leveraged to provide multiple benefits to human wellbeing.”

Missing pathways and mechanisms

“We hypothesise that missing pathways and mechanisms could be present in ecosystem-dependent communities, and especially traditional and Indigenous communities, considering their very unique relations with nature,” said Gasparatos.

“Another of the knowledge gaps we identified is that the existing literature on these nonmaterial dimensions of human-nature relationships mainly focuses on the wellbeing of individuals rather than on collective (community) wellbeing,” added Huynh.

“This significant gap hinders our capacity to identify possible synergies and trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.”

Real-world impact

The researchers hope the key findings will be applied to enable real-world impact.

“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 wellbeing,” said Gasparatos.

Professor Kensuke Fukushi from IFI and study co-author summarised his hope that “an improved understanding of nature’s many connections to human wellbeing and the underlying processes mediating them, can help policymakers to design appropriate interventions.

“Such coordinated action could leverage the positive contributions of these connections and become another avenue to protect and manage ecosystems sustainably.”


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