Happiness Is Green-Colored
Why Is There Such a Strong Association Between Gardening and Well-being?
Posted May 14, 2014
Imagine you realize that you’re not as happy as you should be in your life, and decide you need to take some steps to enhance your level of well-being. There are a number of new activities and practices you could take up: meditation, dancing, singing, running, consciously performing acts of kindness, religious worship, and so on. Research has shown that all of these activities can increase well-being. But one of the most effective things you could do, according to research, is to take up gardening.
Let me say first of all that I am not a gardener myself. I’ve always associated gardening with hard work. Apart from regularly mowing my lawn (which I do actually enjoy) I have never devoted much time to the activity. But I’m beginning to think that I should start.
Research published last year in the UK found that 80% of gardeners feel satisfied with their lives, compared to an average of 67%. The survey also found that the gardeners who devoted most time to the activity were the happiest. Those who spent more than 6 hours a week gardening had a 7% higher level of well-being than those who gardened less. 93% of gardeners also believed that the activity improved their mood. (1)
These results are similar to an earlier US study of 600 gardeners, which found that those who gardened for five hours or more per week were significantly happier than normal. This study found that the activity had pronounced physical benefits too: on average, the 600 gardeners had significantly better overall health, with fewer chronic health problems and longer life spans.
As a result of findings such as these – and a burgeoning interest in the field of ‘ecotherapy’ in general – in the UK, gardening has begun to be used as a therapy for individuals suffering from depression and anxiety. As an alternative to prescribing anti-depressants, doctors in a pilot study are signing patients up for 12 week gardening courses. The ‘Grozone’ project teaches patients basic horticultural skills and encourages them to grow their own plants, which they can take home afterwards. As well as the act of gardening itself, the belief is that the outdoor exercise and social contact will also be beneficial to patients. (2)
Why does gardening have such a positive effect on well-being?
I would suggest a number of reasons why gardening can have such a positive effect. These reflect the fact that, although it superficially seems a very simple activity, there are a number of different aspects of gardening.
First of all, it is well established now that contact with nature in general has a powerful therapeutic effect (hence the term ‘ecotherapy’).Research has shown that a daily through a park or the countryside improves the symptoms of people suffering from depression and schizophrenia. Contact with nature improves children’s concentration and well-being too. Gardening can obviously be seen as a form of ecotherapy.
This begs the question of why ecotherapy is effective. I believe that part of the reason is that human beings – and all our evolutionary forebears – have been closely bonded with nature for almost all our existence. It’s only in recent times that many of us have been confined to man-made environments. For us, contact with green spaces is therefore like going back home, and fills us with the same sense of safety and belonging. Gardening strongly relates to this, because it is such an ancient pastime. Human beings have been tending and farming the soil for 10,000 years, and even before then, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle our ancestors led involved constant contact with vegetation (especially for the female gatherers). The symbiotic relationship with nature which gardening entails is instinctive to us, a powerful part of our human heritage.
Flow and Mindfulness
Another major reason why gardening can have such a positive effect is that it is an effective way of producing the psychological state of ‘flow’ – the state of active absorption in which we lose our awareness of ourselves and of time. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown, in flow the normal restless (and often negative) chattering of our mind fades away, and we feel alert and alive, as if our mental energy has become more intensified.
At the same time – or at other times - gardening can induce a state of mindfulness. Flow and mindfulness are similar states, but the main difference between them is that in flow our attention is mono-focused, narrowed down to one particular object or area, and closed off to what is outside of that area. In mindfulness, however, our attention is open and panoramic, alert to the whole field of awareness. Mindfulness means living in the present, free from the anxieties of the future, and being open to the beauty and wonder of the world. Over an hour or two of work, a gardener probably switches regularly from flow to mindfulness and back again – as well as, perhaps, to some intermediate states.
Gardening provides a sense of accomplishment too – you can see the tangible results of your activity, even if they may take weeks or months to unfold. Gardening involves physical activity, and nurturing too – both of which are also known to enhance well-being.
And one of the best things about gardening is that it’s free. (In fact, other people might even pay you for doing it.) The pioneer positive psychologist Michael Fordyce observed that most of the experiences which bring us well-being involve very little expense and very little planning or organisation. And gardening is one of the best examples of this. Why spend thousands of pounds or dollars on material goods whose positive effect quickly fades, when you can just throw on some old clothes and step into your garden? And as psychologists and medical professionals are beginning to realise: why spend millions of pounds on psychiatric drugs when short periods of contact with nature are just as – or perhaps even more – effective than them?
And now I’m off to the hardware store to buy some tools….