Flowers can only make you happy by triggering your happy brain chemicals. Here’s how they do that:
Dopamine is triggered by the expectation of a reward. Flowers were a huge reward signal in the world our brain evolved in because they marked the coming of abundance after a hungry winter. Today we have enough to eat all year round so we don’t consciously link flowers with food. But the blossoming of a flower triggers the sense that something special is coming because it triggers dopamine.
Bright colors signaled valuable nutrition for our hunter-gather ancestors. They balanced their diet by scanning for spots of color. They didn’t do it because they knew the chemistry; they did it because dopamine made them feel good. Today, color and variety make you feel good and get your attention even though you can get nutrition in other ways.
This chemical is often called the “bonding hormone.” Oxytocin creates the nice feeling of social trust, whether romantic love, maternal attachment, or group solidarity. We all know how hard this feeling is to find, and how easily it can be lost. That’s why we’re so eager for ways to stimulate it. Flowers help!
Flowers stimulate social trust in many ways. They communicate the intention to invest effort in a relationship. And they convey a respect for fragility. We feel the impermanence of flowers, and it reminds us that care is necessary to sustain life. Relationships can be as fragile as flowers and the care we give to plants helps us remember the care that our relationships need.
This chemical is often mentioned in the context of antidepressants, but research on monkeys in the twentieth century made it clear that the good feeling of serotonin is released when a mammal advances its social importance. Flowers can help you do that. Whether you grow them, buy them, or admire them from a distance, flowers can stimulate the sense of pride that your mammal brain is looking for.
No one likes to admit they care about social importance, but if you fail to stimulate your serotonin, you end up feeling bad. This is why we’re always looking for socially acceptable ways to trigger it. Many of our social rituals exist to satisfy this natural urge in a healthy way. Flowers support these rituals. Whether you give them, receive them, or buy them for yourself, flowers help you feel important in ways that do no harm.
Quest for Wildflowers
A wildflower hike triggers all the happy brain chemicals at once! You get a steady stream of dopamine as you make discovery after discovery. You trigger oxytocin as you share that excitement with others. You trigger serotonin as you applaud your participation in this fabulous activity. You even stimulate endorphin if you hike with exertion.
Wildflower festivals are sprouting up everywhere. It’s not too late for this year, as the peak wildflower season in Crested Butte Colorado will be celebrated July 7-16 with a festival, hikes, and classes.
Find out more about stimulating your happy chemicals in my book, Happy Brain.