Study: Researchers Discover ‘Mechanisms’ Underlying Nature’s Influence on Wellbeing


Researchers observed 227 pathways that show how interacting with nature affects human wellbeing.

Researchers discovered hundreds of links between the cultural ecosystem services (CESs) of nature and human wellbeing, identifying contributions that could be used in future policy for real-world impact.

CESs are the nonmaterial benefits that humans receive from nature. Current studies on CESs make it difficult to explore any patterns or commonalities of their effects on wellbeing. This research is often fragmented by method, measurement, demographic, or place.

Lam Huynh, a PhD candidate in Sustainability Science at the University of Tokyo, gathered a team to capture a “big-picture” view of CESs and wellbeing. The team performed a systematic literature review of 301 academic articles that identified hundreds of links between the intangible benefits of nature on human health.

"We identified 227 unique linkages between a single CES (such as recreation or aesthetic value) and a single constituent of human wellbeing (such as connectedness, spirituality, or health). We knew that there are many linkages, but we were surprised to find quite so many of them," explained Huynh in the press release. "Then, through further critical reading, we could identify major commonalities."

Underlying these 227 unique links are 16 mechanisms, or ways in which a person’s interaction with nature affects their wellbeing, according to Huynh. Specifically, “cohesive," "creative," and "formative" mechanisms facilitated positive interactions with nature, while "irritative" and "destructive" mechanisms facilitated negative ones.

Based on the researchers’ analysis, the degradation or loss of CESs contributed to worse wellbeing, as well as annoying wildlife noises, which were found to negatively impact some people’s mental health. Conversely, “recreation,” “tourism,” and “aesthetic value” were CESs that contributed significant positive affects on mental and physical health.

"It is particularly interesting to note that the identified pathways and mechanisms, rather than affecting human wellbeing independently, often interact strongly," co-author Alexandros Gasparatos, PhD, an associate professor at the Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI) at the University of Tokyo, said in the press release. "This can create negative trade-offs in some contexts, but also important positive synergies that can be leveraged to provide multiple benefits to human wellbeing."

However, the research team noted that they still may not have found all the links between nature and wellbeing. They acknowledged the possibility that there are missing pathways among traditional and indigenous communities and their independent relationships with nature.

Huynh also explained that there is a knowledge gap in existing literature on the individual’s relationship with nature and personal wellbeing. This could make it hard to identify trade-offs in ecosystem management research and practice.

Having received a grant, Huynh and the other members of the research team will study CESs and human wellbeing in urban spaces in Tokyo next.

"This project is a logical follow-up to test whether and how some of the identified pathways and mechanisms unfold in reality and intersect with human wellbeing," Gasparatos said in the press release.

“An improved understanding of nature's many connections to human wellbeing and the underlying processes mediating them, can help policymakers to design appropriate interventions,” study co-author Kensuke Fukushi, PhD, a professor and vice director of the IFI, said in the press release. "Such coordinated action could leverage the positive contributions of these connections and become another avenue to protect and manage ecosystems sustainably.”


The many ways nature nurtures human well-being. University of Tokyo; Aug 5, 2022. Accessed on Aug 9, 2022.

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