Gardening is good for the soul and triggers happy hormones in the brain.
Spring has well and truly sprung. And at last, we can look out of the kitchen window and watch our garden coming to life. It’s a great feeling. It makes us happy. And we certainly need a dose of that after the last year.
So what is it about the garden that conjures up such feelings of well-being? Turns out it’s not just looking at your beautiful garden that makes you feel happy, it’s knowing you played a part in creating it. It’s not just the garden, it’s the gardening.
Positive psychologists describe happiness as a state of mind we develop from challenge as well as pleasure. On its own, pleasure can lead to apathy, disenchantment, and addiction. A few drinks and a Netflix binge - that’s a healthy part of most people’s happiness equation. But if it’s all you rely on to be happy, don’t expect the feeling of wellness to last too long.
Working hard on something we enjoy is an essential ingredient of happiness.
To be really happy, we need to use our skills, get engrossed in meaningful pursuits, and contribute to the greater good. So say experts like Martin Seligman. According to the American psychologist and author of Authentic Happiness, well-being “is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishment.”
And what better way to achieve that than by pulling on the gardening gloves, planting the sweet peas, chitting King Edwards, and dead-heading some daffs?
Gardening offers so many ways of improving well-being, increasing optimism, reducing depression, and helping to cope with loneliness.
As we discussed in a recent blog, the pandemic has resulted in a worrying increase in mental ill-health. Restrictions on travel, long periods of isolation, and the inability to see friends and family have taken their toll. For those lucky enough to have an outdoor space, the garden has provided a welcome sanctuary.
The health benefits of being outdoors and engaged in a physical, often communal, activity has not gone unnoticed by the medical profession. As an alternative to medication, GPs are increasingly referring patients suffering from mental ill-health to local community projects.
‘Social prescribing' is a way of helping people with conditions like depression and anxiety to make connections with other people, build confidence, and increase well-being. Such are the positive benefits of activities like gardening that the NHS has committed to providing the infrastructure for 900,000 people to be referred to social prescribing by 2023/24.
Unsurprisingly, the Royal Horticultural Society is a champion of the scheme. “Social prescribing,” it says, “does not replace medical treatment, but it gives a new future to people who need connection rather than just medication…More people can discover what keen gardeners have always known – that the feel of soil on your hands and a cup of tea with fellow enthusiasts really does make the world a brighter place.”
Thrive, is a charity that uses gardening to bring about positive changes in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable.
It uses ‘social and therapeutic horticulture’ to help improve physical and psychological health, communication, and thinking skills. It’s fascinating how, for forty years, this charity has been embracing the opportunities gardening offers to make people feel, and behave, better: to be happy through engagement in something they enjoy, and by interacting with others.
The social aspects of gardening can improve mental health.
In a recent survey of people taking part in its table-top gardening schemes, the charity found that 80 percent of participants reported better mental health, and 93 percent improved confidence and motivation.
We don’t always have good days, but however despondent we may be feeling, the garden is a perfect place to lift the spirits. One of the best happiness drugs is gratitude.
“Thanking others, thanking ourselves, Mother Nature, or the Almighty – gratitude in any form can enlighten the mind and make us feel happier,” says practitioner hub, PositivePsychology.com. “It has a healing effect on us.”
Spending time in your garden, actively appreciating its natural beauty, and being thankful for it, is a proven way to increase happiness. A ‘thank you letter to yourself’, or a gratitude journal is one way of tapping into the healing potential of the garden.
It’s all too easy to focus on the negatives in our lives. By consciously expressing to ourselves the things we’re grateful for in our garden – its colours, shapes, and sounds – not only do we divert our attention from the gloom, but we also activate happy hormones in our brains like dopamine and serotonin. That makes us feel better, helps manage stress and anxiety, and keeps the immune system doing its thing.
Just looking at nature adds a feel-good factor to most lives. It’s healthy for the body and mind to get outside and admire the natural world. Research into ‘ecotherapy’, a growing scientific area, shows a real connection between being outdoors and improved mental health. Observing plants and wildlife is said to be able to improve mood, stave off the effects of dementia, and even increasing lifespan.
A beautiful view of nature is the perfect pick-me-up
But it’s the sense of purpose gardening gives us that really lifts happiness levels. The gratitude and praise we receive from others can only do us good.
Positive feedback is all too rare – so to hear “What? You grew that? It’s beautiful!” is rewarding and motivating. It makes us feel good, drives us to continue the good work, and the healthy work-reward cycle continues.
Doing something we’re good at and love can put us into a state of what psychologists call ‘flow’. It’s that time when nothing else matters, the cup of tea goes cold, and we eventually look up and say: “Is that really the time?”
Flow puts us into a state of deep contentment where we enjoy the task we’re doing so much, and do it so well, that it almost feels effortless. And getting into flow means we enjoy the task more, as well as feeling more fulfilled, creative, and, of course, happy.
Flow was the brainchild of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. According to the world-renowned positive psychologist, an essential ingredient of flow is the setting of clear, challenging, and achievable goals. Which is part of the joy of gardening: having a plan and working towards it.
We hope you enjoy the challenges, rewards, and pure joy of gardening this year. As you become focused and deeply absorbed, working away at something you love, time passing virtually unnoticed, you may take just a moment to reflect that this is your happy place, and you’re healthier as a result.
And do feel free to pop into our display centre to see some of our buildings for yourself, and discover how we can help you make the most of the garden you’ve created.