Are Flowers on Valentines Day a Big Dumb Waste of Money?

Why do we still give flowers as gifts in the 21st century?

Posted Feb 13, 2017 CC0
Source: CC0

“Flowers are stupid. You can’t eat them (like chocolate). You can’t light them (like a candle). You can’t buy coffee with them (like a gift card). Why would you give flowers to a woman on Valentines Day? They’re just a big, dumb waste of money.”

If you’ve ever had thoughts along these lines, I get it. I didn’t have to dig very far to conjure up that imagined inner dialogue. I’ve had those thoughts myself at times.

I guess I’ve never been a flower guy. I have a vegetable garden. And I have friends who tell me I should plant flowers with my vegetables. And I think, “but that takes space, and will cut into my yield. What’s the point?”

But here’s the thing. Flowers, it seems, actually do lift the mood of most women (men, too, but especially women).

In 2005, Jeannnette Haviland-Jones, director of the Rutgers University Human Emotions Lab, and some collaborators designed a study to explore the power various gifts had to affect the mood of the recipient. [1]

They had 147 adult women do a distraction task — filling out a survey on emotion — and told them they would receive a gift for their participation. When the gift was delivered, the experimenters who delivered the gifts recorded the facial expressions of the recipients. Care was taken to make sure the experimenter who delivered the gift did not know which type of gift they were delivering (flowers, fruit, or candles).

Then they observed the recipients’ reactions for the first 5 seconds after receiving the gift. They were looking for the presence or absence of a Duchenne smile (with eyes crinkled) as a sign of genuine delight. Here were the results.

  • Candles: 77 percent Duchenne smiles.
  • Fruit: 90 percent Duchenne smiles.
  • Flowers: 100 percent Duchenne smiles.

Every single woman receiving flowers in the study seems to have been genuinely delighted.

So why do flowers seem to bring such delight? Is it simply cultural reinforcement? Is there something innately biological about it?

Haviland-Jones speculates that, while flowers mostly evolved to attract birds and insects, they also attracted humans. She says it’s possible that this was because some flowers serve as a sign that fruit will follow. But this isn’t her favorite explanation. She’s quick to point out that the flowers we like most are not the ones that lead to fruit.

Another possibility is that it’s just accidental. We just happened to be somewhat fond of flowers, fond enough that, once we started cultivating plants, we started unconsciously selecting for the flowers that pleased us the most. That process continued until today, where we are blessed with an abundance of super-normal flowers that make us extremely happy. We have roses and tulips far bigger than their natural counterparts. And we have them, because we liked their ancestors, and kept amplifying our favorite traits.

The significance our culture places on flowers almost certainly reinforces the delight as well.

Now this study does not show that all women like flowers. Some women I know can take them or leave them. And it does not show that only women like flowers. Some men love flowers more than some women love them.

But it does suggest that giving flowers to an adult woman is a fairly reliable way to get a big smile.

And that brings us back to our original question. Are flowers a big dumb waste of money? If you’re into making someone happy, it appears not. In fact, flowers might be one of the most reliable ways that money actually can buy happiness.[2]


[1] Haviland-Jones, J., Rosario, H. Wilson, P. & McGuire, T. (2005) An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, 3:104-132.

[2] Disclosure: The author did NOT receive funding from Big Flower or any other vested interest :)