In my article about why plants make us happier, I talked about how we’re innately connected to them through our evolutionary history as well as physiological make up. But though our minds and bodies work in concert with plants, we often forget about how powerful they are in lowering our stress. We get busy indoors with stuff we have to do! So if we remind ourselves to engage with the green world on a daily basis, we’ll gain the benefits of calming our nervous system, restoring our attention, and literally strengthening our bodies. And research shows that only a few minutes of greenery is oftentimes all we need to lower stress.
But we all work and do errands and raise kids and all else. Who has the time, right? Well, here are some quick, little ways to lower stress through plants.
- Take a ten minute walk and count the trees on the street as you go. This will force your eyes to focus on their healing fractal patterns.
- Eat lunch on a bench by plants. Instead of eating at your desk or take-out restaurant, find a park or courtyard where your eyes rest on plants.
- Keep a plant on your desk at the office. Some plants can survive with only fluorescent lighting. Here are 5 easy house plants to grow.
- Set the screensaver on your computer to a forest. Whenever you return to your desk, you’ll see a few moments of a restful sanctuary.
- Look up and notice how the trees soften the sky as you walk from your car, the bus, or subway to your house. Take a deep breath at the sight.
- Grow a plant on the windowsill above your sink. Whenever you wash the dishes, you’ll spend a few minutes zoning out on pretty green leaves.
- Hang a photo or drawing of a scene with plants. If your taste is antique, use a classic bouquet painting, if your taste is modern, try a leaf portrait.
- Put a house plant on your nightstand (that is, if a window’s nearby). This way, the first thing you’ll see in the morning is calming leaves.
- Decorate your table with a cut greenery centerpiece. While you’re eating meals, your eyes will feast on the various green shapes and hues.
- Gently wipe a house plant’s leaves with a wet cloth. Five minutes of petting a green friend will lower your heart rate and tidy up your room.
So this week, if you can, take a little greenery break, whether inside our outside. Schedule it into your lunch hour or afternoon snack time. See it as a window of renewal your mind and body both need, like exercise or sleep. Afterward, you’ll feel refreshed and a bit more ready to take on the stress of the day.
This week, try taking a greenery break for five days and let me know if you were able to make it a habit! In the next post, I’ll share what I do during mine.
During the pandemic, I found myself steering away from any dark or stressful content. I experienced enough illness and death in my own family. My sister was diagnosed with cancer. Three of our beloved pets died. Some of my kids struggled with depression. And extended family members caught covid. Even the news was, and still is, scarier than usual. It was a stressful, isolated time and I didn’t want to add to it by taking in content that strained my nervous system even more.
So I began watching and reading lighter entertainment. Instead of rewatching the epic Game of Thrones, my husband and I watched the goofy Shameless. Instead of reading intense crime fiction, I read cozy mysteries. I avoided threatening political and misleading health news. It was like I wrapped a blinding warm blanket around my psyche. And the redirection actually worked. It helped my mental health. Like a lot.
A Cozy Mystery Makes Me Feel Well, Cozy
Since there are so many cozy mysteries out there, I focused on books that were of my interest and taste. I started with Agatha Christie and jumped to mysteries set in the Pacific Northwest with yoga stories by Tracy Weber and outdoor adventures by Ellie Alexander. I explored gardening mysteries by authors Julia Henry, Marty Wingate, and Amanda Flower. Peter Quinn made me laugh and yearn for my own dear black dog with his Chet and Bernie series. And I had fun dabbling into baking and food mysteries with Joanna Fluke and Mia Manansala. All in all, it was a welcomed reprieve.
Spreading the Stress Relief as a Writer
I had so much fun reading these books. I’d never read a lot of cozies before because I’d dismissed them as too silly or lightweight literary-wise. But many were very well written with vivid details and tight plots. There was a lot to learn from them — and be inspired by. So much so that I felt the spark to write my own. I realized that that warm way of destressing was something I wanted to share with people via my own writerly life. With the pending publication of Leaf Your Troubles Behind, it seemed like a natural fit. In that book, I’m encouraging my readers to find stress relief wherever they can with plants. Well, one more way would be to read a cozy mystery story about them.
Now, I’ve taken that on. I’ve been inspired to see if I can write a fun cozy mystery about plants. Something new and original but still entertaining. I’ve been taking notes, dreaming of small towns, and creating characters. In fact, I think I even have a decent title. But it’s all so early that I won’t share too much just yet. As I progress in coming weeks, I’ll share more details, as I read and journal and dream on.
In the meantime, if you have any favorite cozies, let me know!
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.
You may have noticed that last year I got interested in the mental health benefits of plants. I spent a bunch of time reading up on the latest science to see if a theory I’ve had for a while held any water. Mainly, that plants can help us be happier even if you don’t have a garden.
What I found impressed me. The short answer is yes but how you go about engaging with plants makes all the difference. It’s not like you can say “good morning” to your gardenia and all will be well (though wouldn’t it be great if you could?). It requires a bit of effort and patience, some organization, strategy, and most importantly, time. Exactly where and how and in what doses is what I’ve been researching this past year (see messy desk above).
Leafing Your Troubles Behind
But I’m delighted to now share that I’ve melded all of the science out there with a bunch of research on happiness and I’ve come up with a system to help people grow happier through plants! There are fun activities too. I even figured out a title I think captures the spirit of the book. It’s called Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants. It’s so darn exciting! I can’t wait to share with you all that I’ve learned and created.
That unfortunately means waiting until June of 2022 (wah, *sniff*). But that’s because the good folks at Prometheus Books and I are putting the finishing touches on the cover, text, layout, AND artist Kara Fellows’s totally cool, totally fun illustrations! To check out Kara’s work, visit her website: karafellows.com. She’s so talented. I’ll tell you more about working with Kara and a few previews of her work in future posts.
Lowering Stress and Growing Happiness
So if you’re interested in the natural world and being happier in life, then Leaf Your Troubles Behind is for you. You can pro-order it and be among the first to receive it. And in the meantime if you’d like a sneak peek at the ideas behind this topic, check out my Stress ReLeaf series on this blog. In fact, in future posts, I’ll be exploring even more about the connection between happiness and plants. You can check back this Thursday for the first one. You can also get happiness tips when you sign up for my newsletter below!
Have a natural, happy week!
For me, March 11th, 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of our Covid-19 lockdown. At this time last year, my kids were packing for a marching band trip to Ireland that sadly never happened. Schools closed and our lives changed drastically. Though we lost loved ones, they weren’t from Covid but we know several people who’ve lost loved ones from Covid. My friend’s father died. A friend’s bus driver died. A colleague’s mother died. Regardless of how our loved ones died, they died. Most of us are mourning someone. But if we plant trees to remember them, we honor their lives. Here are three trees that are beautiful but small enough to plant in a city garden.
Chandler’s Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Chandleri’) grows to 12 feet in an elegant wispy structure. It’s dense and darkly alluring. Also, this conifer is virtually disease-free. In full hot sun, I’d say it’s hardy to zone 8.
Wichita Blue Juniper
Conversely, Wichita Blue Juniper (Juniperus scopularum ‘Wichita Blue’) is hardy down to zone 3. This makes it a great choice for most of the U.S. It’s a tough conifer growing to about 15 feet tall and about 4 feet wide. It has an icy blue color and requires little to no maintenance or pruning. It loves full sun and is virtually disease free.
When I mentioned in my forest bathing article that breathing in a conifer’s essential oils boosted NK cells, I was referring to the oil from a Hinoki Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Gracilis’). This little tree’s slender and lovely, growing in evergreen fans that display a coppery tinge in winter. It’s a graceful tree native to Japan and often used in screening but works as a specimen too. Again, it’s hardy to zone 4 so most anyone in the U.S. can grow it.
If you’ve lost a loved one this year, I wish you comfort and peace.
Photos of Juniper and Hinoki Cypress courtesy of Monrovia.