Connection to nature vs contact with nature: The wellbeing link.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post ‘Connecting to nature, what is it and how do you do it?’ Since then, this term ‘connecting to nature’ has become the new buzz word used liberally to describe any time spent in contact with nature. However, wether you realise it or not you experience nature directly all day every day, the air you breathe, the sun on your skin, the water in the tap, walking under the trees, to name but a few ways. You might have also perceived nature i.e. looked at it from afar through a window, or you might have thought about nature, dreaming of your summer cocktails on the beach. That does not necessarily mean connection.  So  I would like to expand on my previous definition and explain further what this concept means and how it relates to health and wellbeing.

People who have researched the topic extensively define nature connection as:

“Connectedness with nature is a sustained awareness ..of the interrelation between one’s self and the rest of nature..(reflected in) consistent attitudes and behaviours” (Zylstra et al 2014 )


“The extent to which an individual includes nature within his/her cognitive representation of self.” (F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz 2004)

Say what?!  These are indeed existential statements that we could spend pages delving into but at the heart they are talking about our sense of relationship with self, others and nature; as it turns out these relationships are at the heart of what we know as wellbeing.

Let me explain! Health is a term that refers to a state of good physical and mental functioning, it has an objectiveness to it in that it can be measured and tested and boxes can be ticked. Wellbeing, on the other hand is otherwise known as spiritual health and it refers to:  ‘intuitive inner feelings and beliefs that give purpose, meaning and values to life (Fisher, 2011) i.e. how you intuitively feel about yourself, your health and your quality of life.  Contrary to popular belief, spiritual wellbeing does not necessarily relate to religion at allIt can not be measured but is often described in the literature as being the most influential aspect of health (Chuengsatiansup. K 2003) . You can have for example great physical fitness but if you don’t feel like your life has meaning, in studies, when asked about their wellbeing people rate it low.

The way we experience positive wellbeing (spiritual health) is through our relationships with self, others and nature and in some cases people may also have a relationship with an ‘existential other . When our relationship is positive we may say we feel connected; connected to our selves like we are living true to our values for example. We will feel   connected to others in strong supportive relationships and we can now go back to Mayer and Frantz or Zylstra above and see that connection to nature is about feeling a strong sense of interrelationship, like the other is part of our ‘selves’. Stephanie Radock puts it beautifully:

“Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth…..identification with life forms beyond your own increase your empathy and respect for the world and embed you in a big family of relatives and relationships.” (Radock 2012)

The kind of words that people associate with a strong connection to nature is words like empathy, awe, belonging, zest. To come back full circle, the meaning behind these words is clearly different from the indifference of contact. Its not to say that contact can’t lead to a sense of connection or rekindle a sense of connection of course it can but its often a certain kind of contact or experience and that is a story for another day.

1.Chuengsatiansup. K (2003) Spirituality and health: an initial proposal to incorporate spiritual health in health impact assessment. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23(1) pp. 3-15. Retrieved from

2. Dhar.N, Chaturvedi, S.K., Nandan, D. (2011) Spiritual Health Scale 2011: Defining and Measuring 4th Dimension of Health Indian J Community Med. Oct-Dec; 36(4): 275–282. Retrieved from

3.Fisher, J. (2011) The Four Domains Model: Connecting spirituality, Health and Wellbeing. Religions, 2, 17-28.

4. F.S. Mayer, C.M. Frantz. (2004) The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature Journal of Environmental Psychology 24(4):503-515

5.Radock, S. ‘an opening: twelve love stories about art (2012) Wakefiled Press, South Australia

6.Zylstra. M. , (2014)Exploring meaningful nature experience connectedness with nature and the revitalization of transformative education for sustainability. PhD


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The only widely accepted exception is when talking about pets

Beginning with the question of ” Who is in your nature family?” Who do you look forward to coming home to and tending to at night or visiting on the weekend, or thinking about when you are separated? Draw your family including your nature family members.
This was one of the activities offered to  teachers at a recent workshop run by  HumaNature Connect (on behalf of the Nursery and Garden Industry Victoria) that helped to structure lessons and discussions with students that would improve young people’s sense of ‘who nature is in their life’ and the idea of kindness and respect as it relates to nature. These lessons and discussions were based on activities in  the Respectful Relationships Curriculum.
The discussion had, highlighted that there is still a stigma around this topic of nature connection with people being labelled as ‘hippies’ and ‘ off with the fairies’ by their colleagues for using the language of emotions and intimacy that characterise connection with nature. One teacher said that a colleague asked her ” Why would you go to a workshop on nature connection?” as tho it was the most unimportant topic she could imagine.  Nature connection is a buzz word in curriculum and in main stream language yet we have a long way to go in helping not just children but adults as well understand what the concept of ‘connection’ really means and to feel comfortable in speaking about emotions. We wouldn’t talk about our friendships with people as ‘human services’ but we talk about ‘environmental services’ as tho our only relationship with nature is a mechanical transaction. The only widely accepted exception is when talking about our pets who have cute faces and a strong sense of perceived aliveness, thus making it easier to feel empathy for them. What if we could bring to life all parts of nature, the clouds, the rocks, the plants. To do this we need to spend time  tapping into the less obvious signs of life that we can only feel or notice when we take time to be with different part of nature. Cloud gazing, ripple making, mimicking plants growing, finding rock friends and just being with and feeling into (to help with this look for the book The other way to listen by Byrd Baylor). We also need to put ourselves in natures shoes and ask ” What would nature say to you for that act of kindness you have shown it?” “Would nature agree with your idea or plan to improve its health?
These are questions and experiences not only for our young people but ourselves as adults. Have a go…see if you can draw a stick picture of your nature family? (Could be the bird on the balcony, the plants in your house, the worms in your worm farm, the special tree you always sit under when you are on holiday, your dog). See if you can find the words for the emotions that you feel for them (there may be many both good an challenging) and write them next to your drawing. What would your nature family to say to you for your acts of kindness? Write your self a thank you card from your nature family.
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No don’t kill it! The uncomfortable side of nature connection.

Connection to nature has a utilitarian side! I have been learning first hand about this from those who understand nature connection better than most, the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.
I take older Aboriginal ladies out bush for a week for women’s business and respite. These ladies hunt turtles for food and to see this makes me and many other’s from our culture uncomfortable. A case in point: I was swimming in the beautiful Mataranka Springs at the end of one of my working camps and I saw a group of Aboriginal people walking around the path carrying the usual zip up supermarket fridge bag full of fishing gear. At the same time I saw some tourists squeeling with delight over seeing some turtles in the absolutely crystal clear waters of this hot spring. As the Aboriginal group approached them, the tourists enthusiastically pointed out the turtles and I thought to myself ” no don’t do that!” I knew what was going to happen next. Sure enough one of the ladies quickly pulled out her line with its big hook and bait and tossed it in, much to the absolute horror of the tourist onlookers who shouted ” No don’t kill it” . I walked past just in time to see this unsuspecting turtle take its fatal bite and in the hope of diffusing what could have become an emotional confrontation, I said to the tourists, “this is food, this is their way, just walk on”.
No doubt I feel challenged every time one of the Aboriginal ladies on my camps catches one of these beautiful creatures; they get just as excited about seeing kangaroos and frIMG_0041ogs as I do, but they see food, I see a cute creature that I want to protect. I guess it makes me think that connection to nature is not just the ‘la la’ feeling of the warm sun on your skin, the chirping birds but perhaps its about respect more than anything;  a respect of co-dependence, which for us is lost in our supermarket ready life and our lens of what’s is acceptable to kill and consume. Fishing is  socially acceptable to us because fish are generally not considered cute and  what’s worst? farming millions of cows, sheep and chicken for over consumption or catching a turtle for yourself and family. For Aboriginal people living in Northern Territory, connection to nature is still rooted in survival for us we are shielded by supermarket packaging, over consumption and our socially accepted lenses of what animals we should care about (its ok to eat fish but not dog).
Perhaps in our efforts to re-connect with nature we can add mindful shopping to our ‘to do list’ and revisit our concept of what is enough when it comes to the volumes of food we catch, farm and consume. I think my lesson is that connection to nature has an uncomfortable side and this is where the real personal work needs to happen to fully understand what belonging to the natural world is all about.
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The parallels between violence against women and the destruction of nature.

Happy International Women’s Day! Whilst not exactly celebratory thoughts I am none the less reflecting on the parallels between the causes (drivers) of violence against women (VAW) and what could be called ‘violence against nature’. The most significant contributing to factor to VAW is named as the culture of ‘male privilege’, in the national framework for the prevention of violence against women (Change the Story) and there are several named drivers of violence that can result in such a culture. It would be interesting to change the word ‘women’ for ‘nature’ in relation to these drivers and see what we get; here goes… The drivers of violence against nature are:
1. The acceptance and condoning of violence against nature.
2. The lack of opportunity for nature to contribute to decision making in public and private life.
3. The negative stereotyping of the identity and value of nature
4. The lack of equal and respectful relationships between men and women and nature.
My experience facilitating workshops with many many diverse groups about nature and wellbeing is that everyone has a positive story to tell about the experience with nature and the benefits it brings to their life; its wrong to assume that most people don’t care because studies show that in fact, they do.  However there are many factors that make equal, respectful relationships difficult. If we go back to my theoretical drivers of violence towards nature,  perhaps the most meaningful things we can be doing are these:
1. Stop allowing violence/destruction of nature to be acceptable
2. Hear natures voice in our planning and decision making
3. Recognise the nature around us and accept its intrinsic value and right to exist regardless of wether its pristine rainforest or the median strip on our street.
4. Challenge our sense of entitlement and dominion over nature
Respectful relationship education is about to begin in schools across the country with Victoria leading the way. It is compulsory for all schools to take a whole school approach to the prevention of violence against women through through this program. In order to fully understand respect for someone else and to develop a healthy relationship with other people, we must have respect and a healthy relationship with ourself too. I wonder if the impact of this program will flow on to also create respect and a healthy relationship with nature ? If it does then we have the trifector that could lead to a dramatic increase in community wellbeing. I wonder what we can do to help schools make this link?! Just a thought….
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Some visual thoughts on nature connection

INSIDE OUT workshop 1 copy

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What is meant by ‘spirit’ and what does it have to do with sustainability?

The Inside - Out Project


It is commonly accepted that human beings experience three layers of experience body, mind and spirit. Body relates to the way our physical self interacts with the surroundings; mind relates our thoughts and intellect but what is spirit and what does it have to do with sustainability?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual Leader, Global Humanitarian, Peace Ambassador and Founder, Art of Living Foundation makes an important connection between science and spirituality as two forms of inquiry. He says

modern science is objective analysis, while spirituality is subjective understanding…..Science explores the outer world with a series of questions beginning with the basic query, “What is this? What is this world all about?” while spirituality begins with the question, “Who am I?” In the ancient world these two forms of knowledge were not in conflict but were understood to have a deep and subtle connection. Man’s knowledge of himself complemented…

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We are all indigenous

Join the conversation at The inside Out Project

The Inside - Out Project

Clearly all people do come from and belong to the earth, but the stories of the many indigenous people all over the world suggest that they know which bit of the earth they come from and they can interpret it in terms of their own culture….Evolution is a profound creation story that connects every thing on earth…… Art that draws our attention to the earth underlines the importance of the relationship between humans and nature. the shapes of plants, of animals , of landfroms of skyforms, have a resonance within us that is lodged in our eyes and brains at the most fundamental level. …..all beings on the earth are related; our origins are the same. ……can we believe in the value of sharing food, respect for birds, animals, plants and trees, in responsibility for the planet? If the most significant identity comes from land, what of those who have…

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Redefining what me mean by practical

for website beach

Erica: A deeper conversation about the needs of people and nature is often seen as secondary  at best to the ‘practical’ aspects of sustainability

Anthony: Perhaps then its about redefining what we mean by practical

Erica:  Yes good point, the meaning we  personally bring to language seems to be at the crux of this culture change. Language is so powerful and goes unnoticed consciously most of the time.  Perhaps the starting point of culture change is an awareness of our own lens and language and filling our own words with meaning. It is easy to use words like sustainability without actually defining what that means to us personally, this is certainly the practice within workplaces.

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Creativity and social change go hand in hand

To create social change in the world we must understand who we are as individuals,  what we stand for and consider what we are going to create through our own actions and ways of being. I picture this process of meeting ourselves to be like a set of lungs in that we breathe in, there is a tiny pause before you breathe out again. The air that comes out is a different composition than the air that went in, it has fundamentally changed.  Otto Scharmer describes this process of transformational change as Theory U, looking in ward at one self down one side of the metaphorical U before pausing and then acting out in new ways as you come up the other side.

Creating change as the words suggest is a personal but also a creative pursuit!

In our society people think they are uncreative if they can’t play piano like Mozart or paint like Michelangelo.  We dont often associate creativity with how we explore and experience the world.  For me it is not enough to just imagine different ideas I find an urge to live them and then upon reflection I try make sense of what I have done intellectually. Its through these actions – through everyone’s actions that society and culture is created. We are responsible for the world we create – for better or worst.

I suggest then that the key to social change is to live a creative life and to live a creative life means to just be your self. Its harder than it sounds, it means letting go of  judgement, fear and ideas about what is worthy to do and then having the courage to live in a more expressive, inquisitive and authentic way. It is worth the effort,  in fact is there any thing more worthy to do than this?

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Part 2 of A mindful answer to a major oversight: Cultivating gratitude for nature

“You think this is just another day in your life? It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now, and the only appropriate response is gratefulness. If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is, if you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day, then you will have spent this day very well.” (unnamed elderly man in film by Louie Schwartz in Ted Talk Nature Beauty Gratitude) 

Being grateful is to be thankful and appreciative and expressing this gratitude in your own heart or out loud can make you a happier, more mindful and a more positive person. There are many things to be grateful for and nature inherently provide us with this opportunity. Nature provides humans with 6 main gifts; the gifts to hear, taste, smell, touch, feel, and see. These gifts allow us to experience what the rest of nature offers, awe inspiring sites, sounds, smells, textures, tastes and that extra something that words can not describe.

“Oh my God.” Have you ever wondered what that meant? The “oh” means it caught your attention, makes you present, makes you mindful. The “my” means it connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And “God”? God is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we’re connected to a universe that celebrates life. (Louie Schwartz in Ted Talk: Nature Beauty Gratitude) 

How do you cultivate gratitude?

Gratitude is a form of mindfulness and so as with other mindful practices it involves simply using your senses to notice what is around you and then adding a ‘thank you’ to that experience.

Some people keep gratitude diaries in which each day they write or draw a message of thanks, others incorporate silent thanks into their daily meditation. I like to encourage people to make ‘Tokens of Gratitude’.

Have a piece of paper or perhaps even a leaf handy as well as a pen.

1. Close your eyes and picture an experience in nature today that left an impression on you. Perhaps it was the bird outside your window,  perhaps a flower in your garden finally bloomed, perhaps you walked through crunchy Autumn leaves, took your dog for a walk?….

IMG_32872. Now ask yourself, in that experience what did nature give you that you are grateful for? Perhaps it was a beautiful sound to wake up to, a burst of colour and scent, a reminder of kicking through leaves as a child, fresh air and companionship…?

3. Write your answer on the tag/leaf

P10103934. Now on the other side of the tag/leaf/paper write down what you could do for nature to ensure that you can continue having that experience? Perhaps you need to protect it , love it, recycle, plant more trees, drive your car less….?

5. Hang this tag/ leaf/ paper somewhere you can see it or pick a natural object that adds some meaning and attach the tag/leaf/paper to it,  then hang it as a reminder.

Expressing gratitude is a corner stone practice of most if not all spiritual faiths and indigenous cultural practices, the western world is just now catching up. However, typically we are doing this through the lens of Science in particular Psychology. Martin Seligman the so called ‘father of positive psychology’ has championed gratitude as one of the core virtues of human beings that if practiced can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life. As a result there is now an enormous amount  of interest in positive psychology in clinical, education and research settings.

But my advice is this: Put science aside, just go outside and look around,  open up your heart and notice, really see, smell,  taste, feel and touch nature. Be amazed, inspired, mindful and appreciative of what and who is around you, smile and say thanks.


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