Ways in which nature feeds human well-being

A systematic review of 301 academic articles on the cultural ecosystem services has allowed researchers to identify how these non-material contributions of nature are linked to human well-being and significantly affect it, as published in the journal Science Advances.

Intangible benefits of nature

They identified 227 unique pathways through which human interaction with nature positively or negatively affects well-being. They were then used to isolate 16 different underlying mechanisms, or connection types, through which people experience these effects.

This comprehensive review brings together observations from a fragmented field of research, which could be of great use to policymakers seeking to benefit society through the careful use and protection of nature’s intangible benefits.

apart from the clean water, food and useful raw materials, nature provides many other benefits that we may overlook or find difficult to capture and quantify, say the researchers, whose work on cultural ecosystem services (CES), the non-material benefits we receive from nature, aims to better understand these contributions, whether through recreation and social experiences, or the spiritual value of nature and our sense of place.

Nature and human well-being

Hundreds of studies on the benefits of nature have explored the connections between nature and human well-being. However, they have often used different methods and measurements, or focused on different demographics and locations.

This fragmentation makes it difficult to identify general patterns or common points about how these intangible contributions actually affect human well-being. Understanding them better could help real-world decision-making about the environment, which could benefit individuals and society at large, they say.

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To try to get a “global” view, graduate student Lam Huynh, from the Graduate Program in Sustainability Sciences at the University of Tokyo, Japan, and his team conducted a systematic literature review of 301 academic articles.

After a critical reading, were able to identify hundreds of links. “We identified 227 unique links between a single CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and a single component of human well-being (such as connectivity, spirituality or health). We knew there were a lot of links, but we were surprised to find so many,” admits Huynh. Then, through deeper critical reading, we were able to identify the main commonalities.”

Specifically, they identified 16 different underlying “mechanisms,” or connection types, which refer to the different ways in which the interaction of people with nature affects their well-being. For example, there can be positive interactions through “cohesive”, “creative” and “formative” mechanisms, but also negative interactions through “irritative” and “destructive” mechanisms.

Previous studies had identified some of these mechanisms, but 10 have been redefined, including the most negative effects, clearly showing that our well-being is linked to intangible aspects of nature in many more ways than previously thought.

Annoyance by the noise of the fauna

According to the paper, the negative contributions to human well-being occurred primarily through the degradation or loss of ESCs, and through the “disservices” of ecosystemssuch as noise annoyance from wildlife, which can affect the mental health of some people in particular.

However, on the other hand, the greatest positive contributions of CES were to both mental and physical health, which were generated primarily through recreation, tourism and aesthetic value.

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“It is particularly interesting to note that the identified pathways and mechanisms, rather than independently affecting human well-being, tend to strongly interact,” explains co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo. This can create negative offsets in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be harnessed to provide multiple benefits to human well-being.

Despite the comprehensiveness of the review, the researchers acknowledge that there may still be more links that have not been identified, especially as the review revealed gaps in the current research landscape.

Ecosystem-dependent communities

“Our hypothesis is that the missing pathways and mechanisms could be present in ecosystem-dependent communities, and especially in traditional and indigenous communities, given their very unique relationships with nature,” says Gasparatos.

“Another of the knowledge gaps that we identified is that the existing literature on these non-material dimensions of the relationship between man and nature it focuses primarily on the well-being of individuals and not on the collective well-being of the community,” Huynh explains. This significant gap hampers our ability to identify potential synergies and trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.”

The team has now received a grant to explore the effects of CES provision on human well-being in urban spaces in Tokyo. “This project is a logical follow-up to check if and how some of the pathways and mechanisms identified develop in reality and intersect with human well-being,” says Gasparatos.

The researchers hope that this study and others like it will allow the main conclusions of this complex and diverse body of knowledge to be applied to have an impact in the real world.

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IFI Professor Kensuke Fukushi, a co-author of the study, sums up his hope that “a better understanding of nature’s multiple connections to human well-being and the underlying processes that mediate them, can help policymakers design appropriate interventions. This coordinated action could harness the positive contributions of these connections and become another way to protect and manage ecosystems sustainably“.

  • (1) Linking the nonmaterial dimensions of human-nature relations and human well-being through cultural ecosystem services. Science Advances.



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