Humans, nature, shifting life towards the built

Humans, like any other
species, evolved in the natural environment. The biophilia hypothesis suggests
that humans have an innate attraction to life and lifelike processes. Because
we developed in the natural environment, our need to connect with nature remains
evolutionary product. To be better attuned to potential benefits (nourishing food)
or threats (potential predators) the natural world provides, being connected to
the natural world could have been adaptive for our ancestors (Kellert &
Wilson, 1993). Our minds evolved in nature, but Buss (2000) suggests that they are
not well-suited for the new, built environment. Urbanization, the process that
drives people into the cities, however, leads to an increasing abandonment of
nature, shifting life towards the built environment. The first time in history,
more people live in urban than rural areas (United Nations Population Division,
2002). Additionally, children from new generations spent less time outside and
most people from the developed nations spent almost all their time inside
(Louv, 2005; MacKerron & Mourato, 2013). Nisbet and Zelenski (2011) suggest
that this shift of environment has detrimental consequences for our emotional
well-being and happiness.

            Efforts have been put forward, to increase people’s
contact with nature again, by building parks, stimulating workers to take
breaks outside, or going on field trips with school classes. And multiple
studies show that exposure to nature leads to a wide-array of benefits,
including increased well-being and positive affect (Mayer
et al., 2009; Nisbet & Zelenski, 2011), vitality (Ryan et al., 2010), improved attention (Nisbet, et al., 2011), and a decrease in aggression,
anxiety, illness and depression (van den Berg, 2005). However, it is not always
possible for people to spend enough time in nature. Therefore, the question
remains, how we can benefit from nature, without being constantly exposed to

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Exposure to
nature has been identified a significant predictor of well-being and mental
health. Another element that people might
miss next to mere exposure to nature might be the psychological connection with
it. From a social-psychological point of view, human have a innate need to
connect and belong. Roszak (1995) theorizes that nature can give us a similar
connection and fulfilment, as social connections with other people do.  This paper therefore investigates, if
connectedness to nature can increase subjective well-being.   

Connectedness to Nature

Connectedness to nature is a
construct introduced by Mayer and Frantz (2004) to measure the emotional
connection people feel towards nature across situation and time, and the
connection to the world as important part of the self.  The Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS) is a
14-item questionnaire on which individuals rate their subjective relatedness to
the natural world on 5-point scales. The CNS has only one factor, high internal consistency (r = 0.84), test
retest reliability (r = 0.79) correlates with biospheric values (r = .49) and
significantly predicts eco-friendly behaviour (Mayer and Frantz, 2004).

to nature can be assessed ether as a state, or as a trait. State connectedness
to nature is a momentary, malleable construct, that increases after exposure to
nature. Schultz and Tabanico (2007) tested individuals’ connectedness to nature
with an implicit association test (IAT) after spending one day in an animal
park, compared to control group spending the day inside. They found
significantly higher connectedness to nature scores in the animal park group,
showing the malleability of the state. Furthermore, it is positively related to
attention capacity, positive affect, and the ability to reflect on life
problems. Reflecting on life problems refers to gaining perspective on personal
problems and thinking them through, which directly relates to psychological
health (Herzog, Black, Fountaine, & Knotts, 1997).  Trait connectedness to nature refers to a
stable disposition that relates to the time spent in nature, environmental
concern, biospheric values, and being less ego-focused (Mayers et al., 2009). The
CNS was proposed to be used to assess, if increasing contact with nature
translates into feelings of being connected to nature Furthermore, it
constitutes a tool to asses, how situational, architectural or personality
factors impact connectedness to nature (Mayer & Frantz, 2004).

Next to the
CNS, other constructs have been proposed to measure the human-nature relation:
commitment to nature (Davis et al., 2009),
connectivity with nature (Dutcher et al., 2007), emotional
affinity towards nature (Kals et al., 1999), environmental
identity (Clayton, 2003), inclusion of nature in self (Schultz, 2001), and
nature relatedness (Nisbet et al., 2009).
They all assess the subjective connection to nature from slightly different
angles and correlate highly with each other (Tam, 2013). This review, however,
focusses on the CNS scale to measure Mayer and Frantz’ connectedness to nature.

Subjective Well-Being

Well-being can be divided into
eudaimonic and hedonic well-being. Eudaimonic well-being regards the extend to
which we realize our fullest potential and follow our deeply held values (Ryff
& Keyes, 1995). Hedonic well-being concerns the pleasantness of an
individual’s experiences through satisfaction of desires (Kahneman, 1999). They
can be understood as respectively functioning well and feeling well. Subjective
well-being is defined as general satisfaction with life, positive affect, and
absence of negative affect (Diener et al., 2002), and qualifies therefore as
hedonic measure of well-being. Diener and Lucas (1999) show that subjective
well-being is relatively stable over time and Camfield and Skevington (2008)
contend that subjective well-being and quality of life could be synonymous. Various
measures for subjective well-being have been proposed, including the
Multidimensional Comfort Questionnaire (MDBF) (Steyer et al., 1997),
Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener et al., 1985), Quality of Life
Scale (WHO QOL-BREF) (Angermayer et al., 2000), Trier Personality Inventory
(TPI) (Becker, 1989), and the Health Survey (SF 36) (Bullinger &
Kirchberger, 1989).

Research on
the relation between exposure to nature and subjective well-being identifies
various modes that increase well-being: Recovery from stress and attention
fatigue, sense of purpose, opportunities for personal development and social
contact, and stimulation for exercise (Health Council of the Netherlands, 2004),
feeling safe, being part, being oneself, getting away, striving, and finding
meaning. (Priest, 2007). The question remains, if next to the mere presence in
nature, the psychological connection an individual has with nature affects or
well-being. According to Seligman (2011), there are five paths towards
well-being: positive emotions, relationships, accomplishments, engagement, and
meaning. To increase well-being, connectedness to nature should relate to at
least one of these aspects. (engagement and meaning closest to CN – both emphasize aspects of

The Relation Between Connectedness to Nature and
Subjective Well-Being

Mayer and Frantz (2014)
studied the relation between connectedness to nature and measures of
well-being. They found significant correlations between connectedness to nature
and life-satisfaction, happiness and positive affect. The reported correlations
between connectedness to nature and happiness vary substantially from -0.01
(Nisbet et al., 2011) to 0.42 (Zelenski and Nisbet, 2014). Further studies
identified significant correlations between connectedness to nature and social
well-being and mindfulness (Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011),
meanings in life and vitality (Cervinka, Röderer, & Hefler, 2012), and
emotional and psychological well-being (Nisbet & Zelenski, 2013; Ryan &
Deci, 2001). Apparently, eudaimonic well-being correlates stronger with
connectedness to nature than hedonic well-being. Therefore, it captures better
functioning well, than feeling well. (Howell et al., 2011)

Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal, and Dolliver (2009) assessed various measures of
well-being, after exposing participants to either an urban environment, virtual
nature (Screen, window) or a real natural environment. They suggest
connectedness to nature to be a mediator between exposure to nature and general
well-being. Mayer et a. (2009) also show that the increase in positive affect
and well-being, after exposure to nature, is mediated by an increase in state
connectedness to nature. Howell, Passmore and Buro (2013) take it further and
identify “meaning in life” to mediate the relation between connectedness to
nature and well-being. Meaning in life refers to the ability for
self-transcendence, identification with stable patterns of permanency, the
belief that life fits within a larger scheme, feeling alive, and a sense of
connection (Nisbet et al., 2011). All of these elements can be found in nature
(Cervinka et al., 2012). Because experiences in nature constitute a source of
meaning for adults (O’Connor & Chamberlain, 1996), Howell et al. (2013) suggest
that people derive meaning from the connectedness to nature to increase their
well-being. Various forms of connection (religion, art) have been identified to
provide meaning in life (Vernon, 2008), which suggests connectedness to nature
to be another form of connection to derive meaning from and increase happiness
and well-being. Additionally, mindfulness and spirituality have been identified
to mediate the relation between connectedness to nature and well-being (Howell
et al., 2013; Kamitsis & Francis, 2013), supporting the notions of
self-transcendence to be part of meaning in life.

individual level of connectedness to nature determines how natural scenes are
evaluated. Davis and Gatersleben (2013) grouped participants in high and low
groups of connectedness to nature and exposed them to manicured gardens and
wild cliffs. Individuals with low connectedness to nature rated the gardens
significantly more boring and the wild cliffs scarier, than participants with
high connectedness to nature. Individuals with high connectedness to nature
rated the wild cliffs to be a positive, transcending experience.

Because connectedness to
nature is a malleable construct, the following section explores how to increase
an individual’s connectedness to the natural world.


Variability in Connectedness
to Nature


Connectedness to nature is
individually different and varies along a continuum (Mayer and Frantz, 2004).
Which factors influence this variability, however, remains the question. For
people to develop biophilic beliefs, feelings or tendencies, they must have
positive nature experience in a critical time period during development (Orr,
1993). According to Tam (2013), individuals with higher connectedness to nature
recall more times they spent in nature during childhood. Apparently, outdoor experiences
in natural settings with family or other role models have a significant
influence on individual connectedness to nature levels (Sward, 1999). Ernst and
Theimer (2011) report that it is crucial to stimulate connectedness with nature
through environmental education before age 11, because younger children still
form attitudes about nature and are actively searching for information about
wildlife. The preadolescent phase is the period of change in the social
development of children, where the self-conception and the family and
peer-relations are transformed (Steinberg & Silverberg, 1986). Then, the
onset of puberty gives children a sense of greater autonomy and prevents the
inclusion of nature on a long-term basis (Liefländer, Fröhlich, Bogner, &
Schultz, 2013). Therefore, young ages constitute a good opportunity to foster
appreciation for nature (Ernst & Theimer, 2011). Furthermore, Schultz
(2002) shows that children between 10-11 are as highly connected with nature as
environmental activists.

            Another factor to influence connectedness to nature is
probably self-awareness (Frantz, Mayer, Norton, & Rock, 2005). Industrialism
put the self at the center of attention, replacing the community (Baumeister,
1987). Therefore, people view themselves as
distinct from the world around them, lacking a connection to the natural world,
too (Kidner, 2001). Leopold (1949) said the main problem to be humanity, not
seeing ourselves to be simple member of the broader natural world. Objective
self-awareness theory distinguishes between objective and subjective
self-awareness (Silvia & Duval, 2004). Objective self-awareness puts the
self at the center, while the rest constitutes the ground. The self is detached
and distinct from its surrounding (Duval et al., 2001). Subjective
self-awareness sets the focus away from the self, experiencing the self as
source of action and perception (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), with blurred
boundaries between the self and the environment and an experiential feeling of
unity (Silvia, 2002). Objective self-awareness should therefore increase
self-centeredness and decrease connection to nature. While someone holds
positive values and attitudes towards the environment, however, a heightened
self-awareness could also stimulate action consistent with them. Frantz et al.
(2005) hypothesized and confirmed experimentally that individuals with high
environmental attitudes show no change in connectedness in nature under high
objective self-awareness conditions, because self-centeredness and activated
environmental values and attitudes act against each other. Individuals with low
environmental attitudes, however, experience a significant decline in
connectedness to nature, when increasing the objective self-awareness. To
increase connectedness to nature, the goal should therefore be to avoid
self-absorption in the population and to promote pro-environmental values and
attitudes (Frantz et al., 2005)







Life is shifting towards the
built environment out of the natural environment. More than 350.000 generations
of humans lived close and in harmony with nature, including a sense of
belonging, identity and embeddedness within the natural world. Considering
humanities evolutionary background, there must be consequences of the shift
away from nature and benefits of connecting back with it (Pretty, 2002). McEwen
(1998) identified chronic and acute stress to increase within urban societies
and an insufficient recovery from the consequences. Furthermore, Wilson (2005)
claims environmental sustainability to be a major issue of the present century,
with population growth, consumption, and non-renewable resource use growing out
of proportion (Oskamp, 2000).

            Therefore, various efforts have been put forward, to get
people back into nature, or introduce nature back into the cities. Thus, the
number of green spaces in urban areas correlates with the mental health of the
citizens (DeVries et al., 2013), greater life satisfaction, and lower mental
distress (White, Alcock, Wheeler, & Depledge, 2013). Accumulating research,
however, identifies more factors than the mere exposure to nature to be
relevant for mental health and environmental concern.


Considering a need for
interventions early in development, environmental education programs that can
be applied in schools may constitute a viable mechanism to increase
connectedness to nature among the next generations. The goal of environmental
education, defined by the Belgrade charter (UNESCO-UNEP, 1976) is to develop
environmental awareness and concern among the world population, with
motivations, skills, attitudes, knowledge, and commitment, to solve current
environmental problems and prevent new ones. According to Wilson (1984), there
is a difference between encouragement of emotional connection with nature and
teaching about nature. In this vein, Hinds and Sparks (2008) report that
increased connectedness to nature leads to a greater intention to engage with
it. Also, positive nature experiences lead to increased connectedness to nature
(Kossack & Bogner, 2011), suggesting bi-directional effects of nature
experience and connectedness to nature. To effectively change connectedness to
nature through environmental education, Zelezny (1999) claims extended programs
to be more effective than one-day programs. Cheng and Monroe (2010) support
that environmental education requires a duration of at least 3-5 days for
children below age 11 to effectively influence connectedness to nature.
Children older than 11-12 are less effected by the interventions, giving early
environmental education the most sustainable effect on connectedness to nature
(Wells & Lekies, 2006). Effective environmental education needs to convey
knowledge about the ecosystem, relationships of natural elements and increase
empathy to the natural environment (Kaiser, Roczen, & Bogner, 2008).
However, mere knowledge is not sufficient. Direct, positive experience of
nature is required for a motivational basis to change one’s conception of the
natural world (Liefländer, 2013). Providing local, area-specific, hands-on
experience could be the key for environmental education, given that effective
environmental education is more than just going outside (Ernst & Theimer,



The validity of the CNS for
assessing an individual’s emotional relatedness to the natural environment has
been tested and supported in various studies (Mayer & Frantz, 2014; Olivos,
Aragones, & Amerigo, 2011). Content analysis of the CNS by Perrin, Victor,
and Benassi (2009), however, suggests that the items do not measure emotional connection
to nature, but cognitive beliefs about the connection to the natural
environment. Half of the items include the word “feel”, which supposedly refers
to cognitive reflections, rather than affective appraisals about the connection
to nature. They propose to abandon the CNS for assessing emotional connection
to nature and use it for cognitive measurements. To assess the emotional
connection to nature, a new scale may be required (Perrin et al., 2009)


From a social psychological
perspective, feeling connected to someone means including the other person in
one’s conception of the self (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991). This
self-other overlap consequently should translate into greater empathy, willingness
to help, and perspective taking abilities. (Cialdini, Brown, Lewis, Luce, &
Neuberg, 1997). The inclusion of another person into the self-conception might
work similarly with nature (Roszak, 1995). Schultz (2002) hypothesizes that
similarly to the connection two people can have, positive experiences, interaction
and frequently spending time in nature may increase the perceived
connectedness. Wells and Lekies (2006) show that frequency of experience in
nature during childhood relates to commitment and pro-environmental behaviour
later in life. Using an implicit associations test to measure connection to
nature, Schultz, Shriver, Tabanico, and Khazian (2004) show that connectedness
to nature is positively associated with biospheric concerns and negatively with
egoistic concerns. Therefore, individuals with a strong sense of connectedness
to the natural world are more concerned about environmental issues and less
concerned about issues affecting them directly (Schultz et al., 2004) This
environmental concern might stem from the feeling of oneness with the natural world
and the view that the personal welfare is related to the welfare of the natural
world (Mayer & Frantz, 2004). Consequently, harm to the natural world can
translate into harm to the individual and a stronger sense of protectiveness
develops (Roszak, 1995). In the light of our unsustainable management of
resources and consumption (Oskamp, 2000), connectedness to can counter current
environmental issues (Liefländer, Fröhlich, Bogner, & Schultz, 2013). Mayer
and Frantz (2004) report connectedness to nature to relate to ecological
behaviour, anti-consumerism, and identity as an environmentalist. Restoring
people’s connection to nature is a key component of ecological behaviour
(Leopold, 1949).


            However, Capaldi et al. (2014) claim that through this
social psychological empathy people build toward nature, damage to nature could
be detrimental to individuals mental health. One quarter of the American
population reports feeling guilty or depressed about global warming.
Furthermore, the more alarmed people are, the more afraid, angry, disgusted,
and said they are (Doherty & Clayton, 2011). Maibach et al. (2009)
describes this as eco-anxiety, which is associated with panic attack,
irritability, loss of appetite, weakness and sleeplessness. Nobel (2007) hypothesizes
that connectedness to nature leads to decreased well-being, or the positive and
negative effects cancel each other out. Furthermore, people might be unaware
that they damage nature, or a willingly self-destructive (Mayer et al., 2009).
For these individuals, the inclusion of nature into the self-concept does not
translate into pro-environmental behaviour.  


Another limitation put forward
by Mayer and Frantz (2004) is the relatively small effect size between
happiness and connectedness to nature (Cohen d = 0.21). This correlation is
similar to the average found in social psychology, however (Richard et al.,
2003). Furthermore, most studies report only correlational data, based on
questionnaire analysis, prohibiting causational interpretation of the results.
Experimental studies manipulated connectedness to nature and found consequently
positive correlations between increasing connectedness and measures of
well-being (Mayer, Frantz, Bruehlman-Senecal, & Dolliver, 2009) This
supports a causal relation between connectedness to nature and well-being.
Future research could manipulate the well-being of individuals and then measure
their connectedness to nature.


Psychotherapy can also gain
from the psychological benefits being connected to nature provides. Nature
therapy provides a therapeutic framework that uses creative methods and takes
place in nature to relate to nature as a partner for the patient to go through
the healing process. Integration, connection and feeling complete are central
components of happiness, whose loss mean damage to well-being, and psychiatric
and health problems (Berger & McLeod, 2006). Being connected to nature can
help to restore these elements: A strong sense of connectedness to nature
increases the ability to deal with life problems, the ability to reflect and
perspective taking (Mayer et al., 2009). Feelings of self-transcendence and
belongingness to something greater than the self and shifting the focus away
from the individual towards the holistic environment possibly has great
benefits for treating patients who are stuck in their distorted perception of
reality, widening their perspective (Berger & McLeod, 2006). Mayer et al.
(2009) recommend practitioners to promote this feeling of belongingness and
connection to the natural world in patients. Additionally, the right-hemisphere
has been identified to contribute to coping and trauma recovery. Nature therapy
can expand patients awareness to those non-cognitive, non-verbal area of the
brain that is responsible for creativity and holistic thought to support
recovery from mental health issues (Berger, 2006; 2008).

            Becker (1994) identified 3 other factors that are crucial
for well-being: meaningfulness vs. depression, self-obliviousness vs.
self-centeredness, and freedom of distress vs. nervousness. Connectedness to
nature was tested on these three dimensions and correlates robustly with
meaningfulness, vitality and psychological well-being (Cervinka, Röderer,
Hefler, 2011). Meaningfulness refers to a purpose in life, freedom of powerlessness,
helplessness, fear or depression, and a feeling of acceptance. It is the
strongest correlate of connectedness to nature. Self-centeredness has been
shown to decrease with higher connectedness to nature (Olivos et al., 2011),
enabling self-transcendence, which relates to self-obliviousness. And lastly,
stress reduction and psychological recovery is linked with exposure to nature
(Herzog, Maguire, & Nebel, 2003). Exposure and connection to nature
therefore fulfil all of Becker’s three paths to happiness.