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Blog post Part of series: Wellbeing and being outdoors

Giving back to nature

Dom Higgins, The Wildlife Trusts.

We have a fine tradition of volunteering in the UK, supported by a valuable network of volunteer centres in communities. Research suggests that two hours of giving a week improves health, and people who regularly volunteer to help others are less likely to die early and more likely to have a positive outlook on life than those who do not (Kim et al., 2020).

Getting involved in social and community life has been shown to improve wellbeing and is a growing area of interest in research (see for example Curry et al., 2018; Post 2014). People who have a genuine interest in helping others, and nature, are more likely to rate themselves as happy. Research into actions for promoting happiness has shown that committing an act of kindness once a week over a six-week period is associated with an increase in wellbeing (Curry et al., 2018). In May 2020, ‘mental health awareness week’ had the theme of ‘kindness’. As part of the week, the Mental Health Foundation (2021) created a ‘Kindness Matters’ guide – backed up with evidence to show that ‘giving’:

  • feels good, improves our support networks, and helps us to be more active,
  • creates a sense of belonging to each other – reducing feelings of isolation,
  • helps us keep things in perspective
  • is contagious – with a strong ‘multiplier’ effectmotivates us to take better care of ourselves.

It seems that the more you do for others, the more you do for yourself. This year’s mental health awareness week had nature as its theme. And just in time too – we are facing two inextricably linked crises: the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. Nature in the UK is in a sorry state and important habitats are damaged and declining (NBN, 2019). Losing wildlife and habitats leaves us less able to reduce our emissions and adapt to change. At the end of January 2021, we saw the results of the biggest ever opinion poll on climate change. The United Nations Development Programme (2021) questioned 1.2 million people in 50 countries, many of them young. The headline: two-thirds of people think climate change is a global emergency. The poll also found that the more education a person had completed, the more likely they were to think there is a climate emergency.

Our relationship with the natural world is in trouble. We are overseeing the destruction of our life-support system. We need to face an uncomfortable truth that not everyone feels close to, or a part of nature. It is well documented that people who live in areas defined as economically deprived are less likely to have access to green space and places to play. This may contribute to a lack of empathy for the plight of wildlife and their precious habitats, and a lack of empathy leads to inaction.

‘Our relationship with the natural world is in trouble. We are overseeing the destruction of our life-support system … [Limited access to green space and places to play] may contribute to a lack of empathy for the plight of wildlife and their precious habitats, and a lack of empathy leads to inaction.’

In a review of the 30 Days Wild initiative that the Wildlife Trusts has been running for five years, Richardson (2020) found that those taking part had sustained increases in happiness, health, connection to nature and pro-nature behaviours. Two months after taking part in 30 Days Wild, the number of people reporting their health as excellent increased by over 30 per cent – those that gained most were those with low connection to nature initially.

The recent lockdowns have highlighted that while some of us can see wildlife from our windows or take a walk in nearby woods, there are many who do not have this privilege. Where we live has a massive effect on our health and happiness. We need everyone to be able to access nature from their doorsteps. We must bring nature back into everyone’s daily lives. It is time for a new kind of giving; one where we take direct action to bring nature back (Wildlife Trusts, 2021).


References

Curry, O. S., Rowland, L. A., Van Lissa, C. J., Zlotowitz, S., McAlaney, J., & Whitehouse, H. (2018). Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 320–329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.014

Kim, E. S., Whillans, A. V., Lee, M. T., Chen, Y., & VanderWeele, T. J. (2020). Volunteering and subsequent health and well-being in older adults: An outcome-wide longitudinal approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 59(2), 176–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2020.03.004

National Biodiversity Network [NBN]. (2019). State of nature 2019. https://nbn.org.uk/stateofnature2019/

Mental Health Foundation (2021). Kindness matters. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/kindness/kindness-matters-guide

Post, G. (2014). It’s good to be good: 2014 biennial scientific report on health, happiness, longevity and helping others. Jonnes and Barlett Publishers.

Richardson, M. (2020). 30 days wild: A 5 year review. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/30%20Days%20Wild%205%20YR%20Summary%20Review.pdf

Wildlife Trusts. (2021). Take action. https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/

United Nations Development Programme [UNDP]. (2021). Peoples’ climate vote: Results. https://www.undp.org/publications/peoples-climate-vote