Happy kids, happy planet

Mental health study reveals the unexpected importance of sustainable habits

Connecting with nature can make you (and the planet) happier.

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New research reveals a surprising reason why spending time in nature as a child matters not just for mental health and physical health, but for the planet's long-term health, too.

In a study of 300 children, ages 9 to 12, researchers found the more connected to nature kids are, the more likely they are to engage in sustainable habits, like recycling and picking up trash. In turn, being green appears to make children happier.

Researchers gave children a survey to assess their relationship with nature. Children rated how connected they feel to nature, how happy they are, and reported whether or not they engage in sustainable habits.

“Connectedness to nature,” the researchers say, means appreciating nature’s beauty, feeling part of it, and “sustained awareness of the interrelation between oneself and the rest of nature, which is in a continuum that includes both information and experience.”

The children answered questions that gauged their oneness with the natural world, reporting to what extent they agree with statements like:

  • I like to hear different sounds of nature.
  • Being in natural environment makes me feel peaceful.
  • Humans are part of the natural world
  • Collecting rocks and shells is fun.
  • Taking care of animals is important to me.

They also answered questions about their habits, including:

  • I separate empty bottles to recycle.
  • I look for a way to reuse things.
  • I encourage my friends and family to recycle.
  • I turn off the lights in rooms where they are not being used.
  • I shut off the water faucet while brushing my teeth.
  • I leave the fridge door open for a long time while choosing food.
  • I watch videos or environmental programs

The survey also included questions about altruism, frugality, and equity. Kids answered questions like whether they help friends with homework, how they spend their money, and whether men and women have equal decision-making power.

The researchers also asked them to rate how happy they are, and how they think they compare to others.

The more connected to nature, the more eco-friendly habits kids have, and the stronger their feelings of altruism and frugality. At the same time, kids who care the most about nature are also the happiest — and think they are happier than their peers.

The results were published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The study jibes with a 2015 paper that reports similar results in young adults, suggesting connectedness with nature leads to sustainable habits. The researchers on this study focused on younger kids because of the future role children will play as “caretakers of natural places," they say.

Defining natural connections

Just as connectedness to nature appears to make people care about conservation, a disconnect may have the opposite effect.

People are unlikely to protect what they don’t really care about, the researchers say.

Suffering from a disconnect may be a sign of “nature deficit disorder,” an informal term kicked around for years to describe the “psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years," the researchers say.

The results underscore the findings of a May 2019 study which suggests growing up in rural environments confers a lasting benefit to mental health — one that lasts well into adulthood. That study, too, suggests that experiencing the converse, a nature deficit, may have negative consequences.

As the 2019 study's co-author, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, director of IS Global’s urban planning, environment and health initiative, told Inverse at the time:

“I think the reason for it is, in general, our brains are still wired for when we were still living in the savannahs and jungles with a lot of nature around us. It’s only the last few hundred years that we have moved into cities. Our brains are not really adjusted to that. It creates a kind of stress, and in particular, there’s a lot of brain development happening at young ages.”

Ultimately, the results of the new study offer a lesson for parents, said lead author Laura Fernanda Barrera-Hernández, in a statement.

"Parents and teachers should promote children to have more significant contact or exposure to nature,” Berrera-Hernández said.

"Our results indicate that exposure to nature is related to the connection with it, and in turn, with sustainable behaviors and happiness."

Abstract: Given the environmental problems humanity is currently facing, and considering that the future of the planet lies in the hands of children and their actions, research about the determinants of sustainable behaviors in children become more relevant; nonetheless, studies on this topic focusing on children are scarce. Previous research on adults suggest, in an isolated manner, the relationship between connectedness to nature, the development of behaviors in favor of the environment and positive results derived from them, such as happiness and well-being. In the present research, connectedness to nature was considered as a determinant of sustainable behaviors, and happiness as a positive consequence of the latter. This research aimed to demonstrate the relationship between these variables in children. Two hundred and ninety six children with an average age of 10.42 years old participated in the study, who responded to a research instrument that measured connectedness to nature, sustainable behaviors (pro-ecological behavior, frugality, altruism, and equity) and happiness. To analyze the relationships between these variables, a model of structural equations was specified and tested. The results revealed a significant relationship between connectedness to nature and sustainable behaviors, which in turn impact on happiness. This suggests that children who perceive themselves more connected to nature tend to perform more sustainable behaviors; also, the more pro-ecological, frugal, altruistic, and equitable the children are, the greater their perceived happiness will be. The implications for studying and promoting sustainable behaviors are discussed within the framework of positive psychology.