When I was a professional gardener, I made a lot of people happy by helping them with their gardens. Usually, I either created and installed a new garden or maintained the one they already had. Regardless, after my work was finished, my clients often told me their garden was their happy place. It relieved them from stress. Reset their energy. I understood this since my own garden made me happy too, even when there was a lot of work to do. So I started to wonder: why exactly did plants make us happier?
I knew the reasons that applied to me: they were beautiful, soothing, diverse, silent, expected, honest. But I wanted a deeper answer.
Why did they make me feel so good and restored? What is it about the human body and its reaction to plants? Now, after more than a year of research, I’ve figured out five reasons.
1. Plants were our first evolutionary home.
For thousands of years, people were immersed in nature. We relied on plants for shelter, food, clothing, furniture, boats, medicine, weapons, and so much else. It’s only natural that we feel a deep, innate connection to them. That connection was termed biophilia by biologist E.O. Wilson. He proposed that humans are innately drawn to natural environments and other living systems. Many studies have proven him right.
2. Plants grow in patterns pleasing to our visual system.
Have you ever looked at a leaf close up? There’s always a few thicker main veins from where smaller veins branch out, then smaller ones, and so on. This pattern that repeats and is often equally sub-dividable is called a fractal. They occur in leaves, tree branch structure, overlapping greenery, and even how flowers spiral. Our eyes are anatomically built to explore visual material in this way. So when we look at plants, we lock in to our natural way of seeing the world. In turn, this correlative experience makes us feel at ease.
3. Green colors soothe our nerves.
Studies show muted green colors negate arousal in our bodies. It has shorter wavelengths so our eyes don’t need to adjust to it. Also, because green evokes the natural world, we feel centered and relaxed when immersed in it. That in turn lowers anxiety. It also makes us feel optimistic and refreshed. All this is why actors and celebrities always prepare their performances in a “green room” before they go onstage.
4. Plants release physiologically restorative scents.
Of course, we all love to smell roses or lilies or any other sweet flower. That inhalation brings us a sense of joy and hope. But some plants, mostly coniferous trees, release their natural oils, which not only evoke positive feelings, but literally heal our bodies. Several studies out of Japan show that inhaling the scents of trees lowers blood pressure and heart rate while boosting our cancer-fighting cells. Wow! So a walk in the woods isn’t just a nice outing, it’s actually supercharging your immune system.
5. Plants change and surprise us.
We often think of plants as the static background to life, but they’re hard at work growing, healing their wounds, and trying to reproduce. They also grow new tissue, change colors, fight off disease, and most noticeably, bloom. These changes add a serene complexity to our lives. When we see a new leaf unfurl on a houseplant, we can’t help but feel hopeful. When we see leaves change color on trees, we feel a simultaneous joy at the bold colors and melancholy at the approaching winter. When a plant we’ve struggled to keep alive suddenly blooms, it sparks surprise and wonder. Plants quietly progress and that slow but noticeable activity provides us with a richer daily life.
The natural takeaway
So, if plants do literally make us happier, then what should we do? Well, even a city dweller who works in a skyscraper can access nature with a few easy changes.
Next week, I’ll offer some of those easy changes. In the meantime, here’s one simple thing you can do: find a nature-related wallpaper for the device you’re reading this on and set it for your home page. Every day, when check your phone, tablet, or laptop, you’ll be greeted by the reassuring color of green and lovely patterns of your most ancient but familiar friends. And that will, if even for a minute, make you happier.