Southern Cross University Researcher Reveals The Role Of Nature Reintegration In Well-Being

Researcher Royce Willis discusses techniques to improve your environment and well-being through nature reintegration.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | 05 March, 2024

A recent paper published in Frontiers in Psychology explored the dynamic relationship between wealth, materialism, environmental degradation, and mental health amid climate change.

I recently spoke to Royce Willis from the Health faculty at Southern Cross University, lead author of the paper, to discuss the effects of materialism and affluence on carbon footprints and the ways in which reintegration with nature can improve mental health and environmental sustainability. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to explore the relationship between wealth, materialism, environmental impact, and mental health in the context of climate change?

There are a lot of moving parts in this research area which are often studied in isolation. We wanted to bring it all together. There are many paradoxes in this field, such as how wealth offers a buffer against the immediate effects of climate change, but simultaneously leads to increased consumption and, consequently, larger carbon footprints. There is also a growing awareness of the mental health implications of both materialism and environmental degradation.

Our paper explores a sustainable pathway through reintegration with nature to address these intertwined challenges. Returning to pre-industrial lifestyles is neither feasible nor desirable, so we sought realistic interventions that could benefit both humans and the environment. Our paper explores those possibilities, aiming to contribute to a discourse on sustainable living that respects our modern realities and the urgent environmental issues we face.

How does materialism affect carbon footprints, and how can a shift in societal values towards nature integration help reduce carbon emissions?

When I began researching environmental psychology, I assumed that there existed a segment of our society completely indifferent or even hostile to environmental concerns—those who might actively disregard the impact of their actions on the natural world. However, it quickly became apparent that this isn't a widespread attitude. While a small number may exhibit such tendencies, most people show a genuine interest in improving environmental conditions when they're aware of the environment and the impact of our behaviors. The challenge, then, is not about confronting outright opposition but increasing awareness of the environmental implications of our actions.

The problem with materialism arises when it lacks this crucial awareness. The relentless cycle of overconsumption and waste primarily relies on carbon-intensive processes. The availability of affordable products tempts us to make purchases without considering the broader environmental costs that extend far beyond immediate financial implications. This materialistic drive, marked by excessive resource use and waste, significantly increases our carbon footprint.

By cultivating a deeper connection to the environment and a better understanding of the impact of our actions, we can encourage a move towards sustainability. As people become more attuned to the environmental cost of their consumption choices, they will likely prioritize quality over quantity, opt for sustainable products, and reduce their overall consumption.

This shift reduces the demand for high-carbon-footprint goods and elevates conservation and sustainable practices as preferred lifestyle choices. Such behaviors can minimize our carbon footprint and mitigate our global environmental impact, demonstrating a tangible move from materialism towards a more environmentally conscious society.

How can mental health programs be utilized to facilitate reintegration with nature?

Mental health programs can encourage individuals to directly engage with the natural environment and deepen their connection to nature. The programs can employ therapeutic landscapes, green spaces, and nature-based interventions to improve mental health outcomes. These initiatives, recognized for their effectiveness across various contexts, are increasingly adopted by healthcare professionals.

The interventions offered within these programs are diverse, including structured therapy sessions in natural settings, guided nature walks, and gardening projects. Such activities are designed to immerse individuals in the restorative and calming effects of nature, thereby promoting mental health recovery and enhancing overall well-being. This direct engagement with nature can also rekindle an individual's connection to the environment, fostering a sense of belonging and appreciation for the natural world.

Engaging in pro-environmental behaviors is also positively associated with mental well-being. The dual benefits of these behaviors—benefiting mental health and the environment—position them as a potentially impactful therapeutic approach.

In what ways can your research help mitigate the carbon footprints associated with affluent lifestyles?

Our research sheds light on the urgent need for affluent societies to re-evaluate their lifestyles and value systems in response to climate change. By establishing a clear link between the mental health benefits of being connected to nature and the detrimental environmental impacts of a materialistic lifestyle, our paper suggests practical pathways for individuals and communities in affluent societies to reduce their carbon footprints. This involves adopting more sustainable practices, curbing excessive consumption, and actively supporting environmental initiatives.

We propose a holistic strategy that integrates considerations of urban planning, education, and community involvement to drive a societal transformation towards sustainability and deeper engagement with the natural world. The current trend of detaching from nature, driven by a widespread preoccupation with materialism and the pursuit of wealth, has led to widespread environmental neglect and degradation. This detachment not only harms the planet but also has negative impacts on mental health, contributing to the rise of anxiety and depression.

Encouraging a societal shift that places equal value on natural connection and material achievement can foster lifestyles that are not only mentally enriching but also environmentally responsible. These lifestyles can contribute to the reduction of carbon footprints through more mindful living and consumption habits.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for individuals looking to connect with nature?

There are many ways to connect with nature. My biggest recommendation is to pay attention to nature. Even in nature, we can be distracted by material things. Take out your earbuds, turn off your phone, put down your book, finish your sandwich, and look around. Notice the plant growing from a crack in the pavement, look at the bird doing what birds do, and listen for its song. Pay attention to the structure of a tree and hear the leaves rustling in the breeze, feel the same breeze on your skin, and find an insect crawling around in the grass. Get your hands dirty, touch the textures, feel the life. You'll find strength, fragility, beauty, and meaning all around you. Yes, even in dense cities, nature clings on. If possible, get out of town and into greener areas. Appreciate it. We cannot survive without it.

Once you've connected to nature and want to help it more, here are some strategies to incorporate into your life:

  • Adopt sustainable practices at home. Start with simple actions like recycling, minimizing the use of plastic, conserving water and energy, and choosing products with less packaging. These small changes can collectively reduce your environmental footprint.
  • Make conscious lifestyle choices. Evaluate your consumption habits and consider their environmental impact. Opting for sustainable alternatives—like biking or public transport over driving, buying local and seasonal produce, and reducing meat consumption—can significantly lower your carbon footprint.
  • Mindful consumption. Before making a purchase, consider its necessity and environmental impact. Opting for quality and durability over quantity can reduce waste and promote more sustainable living.
  • Educate yourself and others. Seek out resources and courses on environmental issues and solutions. Knowledge is powerful, and sharing what you learn can inspire others to make more environmentally friendly choices.
  • Support environmental policies and initiatives. Vote for and support policies and initiatives that protect natural areas, promote green urban planning, and address climate change. Advocacy is a powerful tool for change.

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