Buzzing on biodiversity: how the quality of nature boosts our well-being

Feeling frazzled? Tune into nature for a well-being boost

There is a growing awareness of the importance of biodiversity, through its provision of a vast range of vital life-supporting ecosystem services. Biodiversity is defined as the variability among living organisms and the diversity within and between species and the ecosystems they are a part of. The ecosystem services linked to biodiversity include - but are not limited to - nutrient cycling, soil formation, pollination, provision of medicines, food, genetic resources and raw materials, carbon sequestration, water flow and air quality regulation.

The immaterial, less tangible but still very real impacts of biodiversity on our mental health and well-being have so far received less attention however. This may be partly symptomatic of our Western societal disconnect from nature, where we may be more inclined to view biodiversity as a material resource. This capacity of nature to support health and healing has been described as a ‘forgotten ecosystem service’.\_k6v0

One study estimated that globally, protected areas in nature benefit the mental health of visitors to a value of US $6 trillion a year. However, small humble habitats can be as important as larger protected areas in helping foster a sense of being viscerally connected to the rest of life.

While it is widely recognised that contact with nature is important for human health and well-being, recent research is revealing that the quality of nature people have contact with is an important aspect of its capacity to foster benefits to well-being. Not all natural areas are equal in their ecological complexity or their capacity to support biodiversity, and these factors are not only important for wildlife and provision of ecosystem services, as they also underpin some of the mental well-being benefits linked to contact with natural settings.

Biodiversity benefits mental well-being in a few different ways - through supporting nature connectedness, and through enhancing the benefits yielded by having contact with nature. Nature connectedness encompasses an individual’s relationship with nature, having been defined as “a realisation of our shared place in nature - how we experience the world here and now; our emotional response, beliefs, and attitudes towards nature”. It is tied to the sense of being part of a wider interconnected web of life that makes up the natural world. One way of considering nature connectedness is that “it’s not just contact with nature, it’s the nature of the contact”.\-u65\_xI?si=\-tZ1V4iW\-HS8ORTP

Nature connectedness is strongly linked to mental well-being, particularly an aspect of it that encompasses life meaning, vitality and self actualisation. It has also been tied to enhanced psychological functioning, resilience and restoration, better overall mental and physical health, and with various indicators of happiness. People who are more connected to nature also tend to value having contact with it (with further additive benefits to health and well-being), and one’s connection acts as a mediator for some of the mental health benefits yielded by contact with nature.

Unfortunately, people's connection to nature appears to be being eroded by an "extinction of experience" - or a diminished capacity for everyday interactions with nature, due in part to growing screen time, sedentary lifestyles, urbanisation, a loss of green space and biodiversity loss.

Sensory contact with nature - actively noticing and engaging with elements of the natural world - act as the foundation of one’s connection to nature. In past work I have made the case for beaver reintroduction to Britain based on psychological grounds, due to beavers’ actions as a keystone species and ecosystem engineer, creating complex and life-rich habitats, which can yield mental health benefits to those having contact with them. In this capacity, beavers could act as ‘super restorers’ facilitating psychological as well as ecological restoration. Beaver wetlands and other habitats supporting higher biodiversity are likely to exhibit a richer sensorial tapestry that people can tune into, providing greater opportunities for connecting with nature.\-l3XTlk?si=rHxHuMRGTrZgFsNM

Enhancing visible garden biodiversity through undertaking positive nature actions (such as creation of wildlife habitats, planting wildflowers and observing pollinating insects) has been linked to greater nature connectedness through an enhanced capacity to observe and notice nature. Nature connectedness is also predictive of pro-nature actions, so such biodiversity and nature connectedness enhancing activities can create a positive feedback loop, benefitting both people and wildlife. By gardening in a biodiversity-conscious manner with wildlife in mind, we can maximise the capacity of our gardens to support our mental well-being.

The physical contact with nature that gardening and other activities can promote may also foster further benefits. There is a growing body evidence to suggest that the richer microbiome associated with more ecologically biodiverse areas may also benefit human health and well-being, with a potential transfer of beneficial microbes between the environment and human body. This in turn may have implications for mental health and well-being, highlighting that the health and well-being benefits of biodiversity may occur through physiological as well as psychological pathways.

One review examining the results of 832 independent studies sought to shed light on the links between nature connectedness, nature conservation and human well-being. Across studies, it was reported that the greatest subjective well-being was achieved via contact with “natural sounds with a higher species richness” and through nature-based mindfulness. Mindfulness and nature connectedness have a reinforcing relationship, with the open, present-moment awareness associated with mindfulness being a necessary prerequisite of connecting with nature.

You don’t need to meditate to cultivate mindfulness in nature however. Wildlife and birdwatching can nudge one’s awareness into the present moment, promoting relaxation and a sense of connection, while practices such as Shinrin Yoku or Japanese forest bathing encourage an active mindful approach to engaging with natural settings, encouraging practitioners to slow down and tune into their surroundings through their senses.

A recent citizen science study used a smartphone app ‘Urban Mind’ to obtain real-time reports on mental well-being and elements of diversity of natural settings from nearly 2,000 participants. It was found that areas harbouring a more diverse range of natural features (such as trees, birds, plants and waterways) were associated with stronger improvements in mental well-being when compared to spaces harbouring less natural diversity. These benefits to well-being were also found to persist for up to eight hours after the initial contact, and even brief encounters with biodiverse areas were found to be beneficial.

This research builds on part work reporting an association between bird biodiversity and well-being, with one study reporting a relationship between bird species richness in people’s vicinity and life satisfaction that was of a similar magnitude to sociodemographic factors such as income. Another study reported that higher bird and plant species richness was linked to lower rates of mental health issues, even when factoring in social and economic differences between study participants.\-OZ4mSZ0?si=WzWd5AX30X1SLCuQ

The link between biodiversity and mental health bears particular relevance to the UK. Unfortunately, it is considered one of the most biodiversity-depleted, ecologically degraded parts of the world, and one of the most nature disconnected nations in Europe. While this paints a bleak picture, there is hope. One recent assessment of global conservation actions (such as habitat protection and restoration and sustainable management practices) found that in two-thirds of cases, the state of biodiversity was improved, or at least declines were slowed by such measures.

Safeguarding our existing biodiversity while undertaking ecological restoration activities to create and enhance habitats to push back against biodiversity decline offers us a huge bank for our buck in terms of environmental, ecological and well-being benefits. If we cannot stem the loss of life from our lands, then our capacity to marvel at the world, and to be nourished by experiences of wonder and awe will be diminished, to both its and our detriment.

Ensuring that biodiversity can flourish in a broad range of contexts and scales - be it in urban greenspaces and parks, in the form of mini Miyawaki forests, gardens, nature reserves and national parks - can not only safeguard wildlife and ecosystem services, but it can also nourish human well-being, and maybe even play a role in amending our deepening disconnect from the natural world.

There can be no well-being without nature’s well-being, and this is built on a foundation of biodiversity.