Our relationship with nature and how it affects human wellbeing has been discussed and studied for aeons – by Indigenous Australian elders, Chinese philosophers, Western writers and many more.

“Our identity as human beings remain tied to our land, to our cultural practices, our systems of authority and social control, our intellectual traditions, our concepts of spirituality, and to our systems of resource ownership and exchange. Destroy this relationship and you damage – sometimes irrevocably – individual human beings and their health.”

– Pat Anderson, Alyawarre woman, AO [i].

This article aims to take you inside some of the latest research which highlights the dynamics in the relationship between People and Country, and shares some of the evidence for how we approach our work to work at the intersection of nature and human wellbeing.


Nature and Human Wellbeing - Nature Immersion

Immersing in nature.

Firstly, let’s explore some of the research which focuses on what happens when humans get outdoors and into natural areas [ii]. It’s safe to say many of us feel the calming and restorative benefits of nature – whether it’s the power of forest bathing to reduce stress, or the sense of wellbeing we get from fresh air and sand beneath our toes.

Various studies are exploring this relationship, and one of the clearest findings thus far is the reduction of stress.

One study on urban nature found that people who had views of nature at home or from a regular walk had lower stress levels and reported significantly higher life satisfaction levels [iii].

Another shows us the importance of more biodiverse natural areas to human wellbeing due to their contribution to mental well-being. Multi-sensory experiences such as bird or frog sounds [iv] or flower smells [v] have well-documented beneficial effects on mental restoration, calm and creativity.

Further studies also show improvements in mood, life satisfaction and purpose.

From a sense of awe and connection, to feeling more energetic and expanding creativity, the expansive study by Capaldi et al (2015) explores a wide range of benefits we derive from time immersed in nature [vi].

Close to home, the ABC Talks Survey in 2019 found that a huge 77% of Australians responders said they would somewhat or strongly agree that they would be happier if they spent more time in nature [vii].

We even know that virtual exposure to nature (e.g. viewing photos and videos) can improve wellbeing (Velarde, Fry, & Tviet, 2007) yet real experiences in nature provide a greater boost of our mood (Kahn, Severson, & Ruckert, 2009; Mayer et al., 2009; McMahan & Estes, 2015). So, while browsing nature photographs or watching a nature documentary is likely to improve mood, getting outdoors and connecting directly with nature may be optimal for maximizing happiness [viii].

Given the many studies out there, we’re clear that there is a vital role of both urban and rural nature on humans, and the importance of even 10-20 minutes per day in natural environments for everyone to improve wellbeing [ix].


Nature and Human Wellbeing - Stewardship in Action

Nature Stewardship

Given the overwhelming benefits simply of being in nature, the temptation is to stop there and just enjoy the wonderful boosts to our health and wellbeing.

Yet there are additional benefits to look at when it comes to the area that Conservation Volunteers Australia specialise in – supporting people to take action for nature, in order to increase our custodianship and stewardship for nature.

What is stewardship or custodianship?

“The custodianship of country involves maintaining a respectful, nurturing relationship with land, place and community to guarantee wellbeing for future generations. Collaborative and cooperative relationships to support custodianship are necessary for success. The custodial ethic ‘emerges from an ancient reciprocal relationship with nature; an ethic of looking after, stewardship, caring for, and the obligation to look after Land that nurtures.”

– Mary Graham, 2013


Studies such as Molsher & Townsend (2015) found evidence of improved wellbeing and mood related to environmental volunteers [x]. Of course we have huge amounts of anecdotal stories from our community of “feeling great” and being “much calmer after having a day in the field” too.

We also know from evaluation of programs like Working on Country that there are ‘significant and substantial associations between caring for country and health outcomes’, including upticks in physical health, lower blood pressure, less stress and contributes to mental wellbeing through strengthening culture [xi].

In addition, fostering a culture of nature stewardship through in person activities also benefits us in other ways. Mens Line Australia identifies volunteering as a great activity to combat loneliness, improve social connection, improve mental health, increase physical activity, as well as offering personal growth [xii]. Another study explored the role of nature stewardship activities and how they improve individual and group agency and purpose [xiii], and there is also evidence which offers perspectives on how nature-based volunteering can support people from marginalized backgrounds to (re-)integrate into society [xiv].

More generally, volunteering is known to foster social cohesion, boost self-esteem and confidence, build skills, and provide significant protective factors for mental and physical health (HealthDirect, 2019) [xv].

Nature Stewardship fosters a strong sense of place, and has been shown to be closely tied to a sense of community, pointing towards increased contact with nature creating more cohesive communities [xvi].

It’s safe to say that the social benefits of nature stewardship are varied and numerous, depending on how those opportunities are designed, presented and delivered. The environmental benefits of nature stewardship action are also extensive.


“The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations.”

– Mary Graham, 1999


Nature and Human Wellbeing - Nature For People

Nature for People

In the ‘Immersing in Nature’ section we focused on the pure benefits of ‘being in nature’ to individuals, but in addition to these benefits it is also worth mentioning the vast benefits we derive from nature as a society.

From the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, nature enhances our wellbeing and freely provides the essentials for our survival. Various researchers and organisations have attempted to model this, from the likes of Stanford’s Natural Capital Project which suggests globally we derive upwards of US$125 trillion value each year [xvii], to those that argue that valuing nature properly is impossible as we barely understand the full complexity and potential of the natural world.

McKinsey’s 2020 report ‘Valuing Nature Conservation’ suggests doubling nature conservation on land and in national waters by 2030 at an additional cost of $20-45 billion globally (on top of $24 billion – 40% of global ice cream sales – already spent each year on global conservation efforts), because growth in GDP from ecotourism and sustainable fisheries alone would provide a healthy 3X return on investment [xviii].

What we also know is that humans benefit from ‘ecosystem services’ every day – fresh water, pollination, soil health, medicine, food sources, cultural inspiration, climate regulation, flood protection and much more. Indeed, according to Costanza et al (2014) ecosystem services contribute more than twice as much to human wellbeing as global GDP [xix].

Simply put, our very existence as humans wouldn’t be possible without the vast, intricate, and complex web of life which we are part of. Nature – all life – has intrinsic value, above and far beyond just a value to humans.


“People need country and country need people.”

– Terrah Guymala, Senior Ranger in Manmoyi Western Arnhem Land & lead singer of Nabarlek



[i] Pat Anderson, ‘Priorities in Aboriginal health’, in G. Robinson (ed) Aboriginal health, social and cultural transitions: proceedings of a conference at the Northern Territory University, Darwin, 29-31 September, 1995, NTU Press, Darwin, 1996, pp.15-18, p.15.

[ii]  When we talk about nature in this article, we’re broadly aligning with Hartig, Mitchell, de Vries & Frumkin (2014), and Capaldi, Passmore, Nisbet, Zelenski & Dopko (2015) ideas that natural areas are environments and physical features of nonhuman origins, ranging from plants to non-built landscapes. So, whilst we know humans are a part of nature, not apart from it – we’re looking into the effects of both urban nature and landscapes which some people would refer to as ‘natural’.

[iii]  Honold J, Lakes T, Beyer R, van der Meer E. Restoration in Urban Spaces: Nature Views From Home, Greenways, and Public Parks. Environment and Behavior. 2016;48(6):796-825. doi:10.1177/0013916514568556

[iv] Ratcliffe E, Gatersleben B, Sowden PT, Bird sounds and their contributions to perceived attention restoration and stress recovery, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Volume 36, 2013, Pages 221-228, ISSN 0272-4944, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.08.004. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000650)

[v] Bretzel F, Vannucchi F, Romano D, Malorgio F, Benvenuti S, Pezzarossa S, Wildflowers: From conserving biodiversity to urban greening—A review, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, Volume 20, 2016, Pages 428-436, ISSN 1618-8667, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ufug.2016.10.008. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716303107)

[vi] Schultz, R., Quinn, S., Wilson, B. et al. Structural modelling of wellbeing for Indigenous Australians: importance of mental health. BMC Health Serv Res 19, 488 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-019-4302-z

[vii] ABC Talks Survey (2019). Data Explorer: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-12-10/australia-talks-data-explorer-2019/12946988#/responses/i-think-i-would-be-happier-if-i-spent-more-time-in-nature

[viii] Capaldi,  C. A., Passmo re, H.-A., Nisbet, E. K., Zelenski, J. M., & Dopko, R. L. (2015).Flourishing  in nature: A review o f the benefits o f c onnecting  with nature and its applic atio n as a wellbeing  interventio n. Interna tional Journal of Wellbeing, 5(4), 1-16. do i:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.449

[ix] Rogerson, M.; Wood, C.; Pretty, J.; Schoenmakers, P.; Bloomfield, D.; Barton, J. Regular Doses of Nature: The Efficacy of Green Exercise Interventions for Mental Wellbeing. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 202017, 1526. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17051526

[x] Molsher, Robyn & Townsend, Mardie. (2015). Improving Wellbeing and Environmental Stewardship Through Volunteering in Nature. EcoHealth. 13. 10.1007/s10393-015-1089-1.

[xi] Burgess CP, Johnston FH, Berry HL, McDonnell J, Yibarbuk D, Gunabarra C, Mileran A & Bailie RS. (2009) Healthy Country, healthy people: the relationship between Indigenous health status and “caring for country”. Med J Aust. 2009 May 18;190(10):567-72. doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2009.tb02566.x. PMID: 19450204.

[xii] MensLine Australia (2021). Benefits of Volunteering. https://mensline.org.au/mens-mental-health/benefits-of-volunteering/

[xiii] Wolf, K.L., Blahna, D.J., Brinkley, W. et al. Environmental stewardship footprint research: linking human agency and ecosystem health in the Puget Sound region. Urban Ecosyst 16, 13–32 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-011-0175-6

[xiv]   O’Brien L, Burls A, Townsend M, Ebden M. Volunteering in nature as a way of enabling people to reintegrate into society. Perspectives in Public Health. 2011;131(2):71-81. doi:10.1177/1757913910384048

[xv] HealthDirect, 2019, Benefits of Volunteering. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/benefits-of-volunteering

[xvi] Parks Victoria (2020) Health Professional Fact Sheet via https://www.parks.vic.gov.au/healthy-parks-healthy-people/for-health-professionals

[xvii] Stanford Univesity’s Natural Capital Project https://naturalcapitalproject.stanford.edu

[xviii] McKinsey & Company (2020), Valuing nature conservation. A methodology for quantifying the benefits of protecting the planet’s natural capital.

[xix] Robert Costanza, Rudolf de Groot, Paul Sutton, Sander van der Ploeg, Sharolyn J. Anderson, Ida Kubiszewski, Stephen Farber, R. Kerry Turner. Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change, Volume 26, 2014, Pages 152-158, ISSN 0959-3780, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.04.002