Time spent on rivers, coasts or lakes in childhood may be linked to subjective well-being in adulthood, study finds

The results of new research published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology indicate that childhood exposure to “blue spaces” – rivers, lakes and coasts – is linked to better subjective well-being in adulthood. Researchers have proposed that such experiences make a person more likely to spend recreational time in nature in adulthood, with positive consequences for well-being.

Spending time in nature has long been considered healthy. A growing number of studies have linked nature experiences to better mental health, including greater subjective well-being. They also showed that people prefer to do recreational activities in nature over built-up areas.

However, studies have also shown that people are increasingly detaching themselves from the natural world. For example, a large survey of people who do not regularly visit natural settings, carried out in 2018, in England, showed that a fifth of survey participants said they were not interested in visiting of nature and that it was “not for people like them.”

Other studies have shown that fewer visits to nature in childhood often mean fewer recreational visits to nature in adulthood. This could have a mental health cost later given the association between these two.

Visiting places like coasts, rivers or lakes have not been studied much before. If blue spaces can be seen as a type of natural environment, they have certain specificities compared to green spaces such as forests, campsites and parks.

They may also contain risks that are not present in green spaces, such as the risk of drowning, especially for children. On the other hand, childhood experiences with such spaces can make a person more confident in them and develop skills to mitigate or eliminate these risks (such as learning how to swim well, dive, etc.).

Valeria Vitale and her colleagues wanted to determine whether greater exposure of children to blue spaces was associated with better subjective well-being in adulthood. They also wondered if this relationship could be because childhood experiences with blue spaces make a person more motivated to visit nature in adulthood, leading to better mental health outcomes.

“Most studies examining childhood nature exposure and adult outcomes have largely focused on green spaces, or natural spaces in general,” said Vitale, a PhD student at the University. Sapienza of Rome.

“Blue and green spaces have many common characteristics, but blue spaces also have unique sensory qualities (e.g. movement of waves, sounds, etc.) and facilitate a distinct range of leisure activities (e.g. , swimming). Thus, we wanted to examine whether the pattern of association between exposure to nature during childhood and adult well-being extends to exposure to blue space in particular.

The researchers analyzed data from the international BlueHealth survey which examined the recreational use of natural environments. The part analyzed in this study consisted of responses from 15,743 people in 14 European countries and 4 non-European regions.

The survey contained an assessment of the subjective well-being of adults (World Health Organization 5-point well-being index, WHO-5), 3 questions on how often the person visited blue spaces in his childhood, ease and comfort. parents’ feelings about the person playing in and around these spaces, an element of investigation on the motivation to visit nature (“I find that visiting green and blue spaces is pleasant or fun”) and some questions about the importance of the visit to nature for the person.

The survey also asked how often the person visits each of the 29 different types of green and blue spaces represented in the survey with pictures. These included parks, woods, meadows, seashores, urban rivers, lakes and others.

The aggregate results showed that people who reported more blue space experiences in childhood also tended to report greater subjective well-being now, as adults. Participant responses supported the authors’ hypothesis that experiencing blue spaces in childhood led to greater motivation to visit nature, whether blue or green spaces, at home. ‘adulthood. This, in turn, led to better subjective well-being.

“The results of our study highlighted the relevance of spending time in blue spaces during childhood, which not only has many positive short-term effects, as shown in previous literature, but also provides benefits to long-term, in terms of improving well-being,” Vitale told PsyPost.

“In short, our research has specifically demonstrated that greater contact with blue spaces during childhood can support better mental health later in life by improving intrinsic motivations and, therefore, the frequency of recreational activities based on on nature in adulthood.”

“We were a bit more surprised by the results showing some consistency of our model across countries/regions,” Vitale said. “Indeed, previous evidence supports the idea that how people relate to nature varies across cultures. Social and cultural background may also trigger different parental perceptions of risk and different educational approaches, which may affect children differently. exposure to blue spaces in children, so we speculated that such differences would have influenced the relationship between childhood exposure to blue spaces and adult outcomes.

While the study highlights the importance of nature to our subjective well-being, the study authors also note that it is also possible that it is recent visits to nature that affect motivation to visit nature. and not the reverse.

Notably, the study design does not allow definitive causal conclusions to be drawn from the data and readers should be aware that the retrospective approach, asking adults to report on their childhood experiences over the years later is not the same as reporting childhood experiences. as they occur.

“A number of mechanisms have been proposed to support the relationship between childhood nature exposure and adult outcomes (eg, connection to nature),” Vitale explained. “Thus, studies using longitudinal designs, with more objective and comprehensive measures of people’s experiences in nature are therefore needed to assess the robustness of our findings.”

“We are aware that people are increasingly detaching themselves from the natural world, due to technological distractions and indoor lifestyles,” she added. “This is particularly relevant for children who may lose the ability to understand and care for the natural world, and therefore benefit from it.”

“So we hope that studies like this can help promote greater awareness and knowledge of all the potential positive effects derived from contact with nature, and encourage people to give the right value to spend time in natural environments.”

The study, “Mechanisms Underlying Children’s Exposure to Blue Spaces and Adult Subjective Well-Being: An Analysis of 18 Countries,” was authored by Valeria Vitale, Leanne Martin, Mathew P. White, Lewis R. Elliott, Kayleigh J. Wyles, Matthew HEM Browning, Sabine Pahl, Patricia Stehl, Simon Bell, Gregory N. Bratman, Mireia Gascon, James Grellier, Maria L. Lima, Mare Lõhmus, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Ann Ojala, Jane Taylor, Matilda van den Bosch, Netta Weinstein and Lora E. Fleming.

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