Why houseplants make you feel better, according to science

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When Hanan Brown felt stressed at work, he pampered himself with a houseplant. “At one point, I think I had more than a hundred plants,” said Brown, who lived in a studio and worked on the front lines of the Boston pandemic, “but he never looked overwhelmed or felt like I had a lot.” For Braun, houseplants are a lifeline to deal with the stress of medical training during a pandemic. Surrounding him with lush greenery always reassured him, he said, and helped him feel rejuvenated.

“The different properties of plants, such as how they look, smell and feel, affect us in so many ways,” said Mengmeng Gu, an associate professor of horticultural science at Texas A&M University. “They can feel good to the touch, make the space more fragrant and delight our eyes.”

But how and why do plants have such a positive effect on us? Here’s a look at research over the past few decades that shows how houseplants affect our psychological and physical health.

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Humans and plants are naturally connected. Humans have an inherent connection to plants and other living things, according to the so-called biophilia hypothesis, an idea popularized in 1984 by naturalist and writer EO Wilson. Since then, more than three decades of research around the world have confirmed the hypothesis and shown that the natural environment has a significant effect on increasing positive emotions and reducing negative ones.

“When people express the common belief that being in nature relaxes them, that it helps them recover from stress and tragedy, that it is a healing process to be in nature, we now know that there is a solid basis for that,” Wilson said in 2015. interview with The Washington Post.

And when people started spending more time indoors, we brought in parts of the natural world to keep us connected.

Plants can quickly improve mood. Our connection with plants is so strong that sometimes it only takes a few minutes to be in their presence to start feeling better. Studies have found that less than 20 minutes is enough to make us feel calmer. In one experiment, participants who spent as much as five to 10 minutes in a room with several houseplants felt happier and more satisfied than those in a room without plants. In another study, participants felt calmer and more positive after spending 15 minutes in a room near a tall plant (about five feet) compared to other subjects.

However, Gu reminds us that “not only seeing a plant improves our mood so quickly, but smells can make a huge difference”, although research on the effects of plants on the non-visual senses is limited.

Plants bring relief to enclosed spaces. If you are stuck in an office or other small space for hours at a time, plants can cause an escape feeling. In a study conducted during pandemic orders to stay home, participants who had houseplants had significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who did not. Being surrounded by houseplants has led to a feeling of being “away” from social or physical demands.

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Plants can reduce stress. Other studies show that interactions with plants suppress the system in our bodies, which is activated when we sense signs of disaster. Young adults in a study who spent a few minutes transplanting and transplanting a houseplant reported feeling much less stressed at the end of the task than their computer-based peers. In addition, blood pressure measurements are much lower among people who handle plants, suggesting that plants have the potential to soften the body’s “fight or flight” response.

Plants can charge us. “The plants also have a huge restorative capacity,” said Melinda Knut, an assistant professor of horticulture at North Carolina State University. “Whether it’s outdoors, in the yard or indoors with houseplants, nature can help us feel recharged and grounded.”

When we focus on demanding activities for a long time, such as our work, it can lead to mental fatigue and negative emotions, which can affect how well we can pay attention. Seeing a plant in this situation can spark a spark of interest, divert our attention, and restore our depleted mental and physical resources, an idea known as attention recovery theory. Studies have found that the plant-induced effect of “recovery” has a wide range: renewing positive emotions and increasing productivity, creativity and attention capacity.

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How do you choose what houseplants to buy? Research can provide some practical guidance:

Number of plants: Although there is no magic number, having five or more plants with leaves can increase positive emotions. For example, in one study, participants in a room with bamboo palms, Chinese evergreens, and heart-shaped philodendrons (five in all) felt more carefree and friendly than those in rooms without plants. Alternatively, a tall potted plant (about five feet) or three or more small floral images (such as sweet peas, larks, or wild sage) can elicit such positive responses.

Color: The greener the better? In a study using English ivy, green-yellow and bright green leaves increase the feeling of cheerfulness and relaxation, while whitish-green leaves stimulate mostly negative emotions. As for flowering plants, one study found that purple, green, red, pink and white can lower people’s blood pressure and heart rate. However, purple and green flowers are more effective for relaxing the body, reducing anxiety and improving mood. Another study found that red and yellow roses elicited a more soothing response than whites.

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Real vs. artificial: Having all kinds of greenery indoors – including pictures of plants – is better than not having it at all. However, real plants have a greater mood, attention and relaxing effect than artificial plants. The same goes for real versus artificial flowers. In a study of high school students, participants who watched real violets for three minutes felt calmer and more comfortable than those who watched artificial ones. Gu’s opinion on the effects of mood outside of visual cues may help explain these findings.

location: Although research on this is scarce, some studies have shown that having plants closer than 10 feet to a person has a positive effect on mood. A study by Knut from the state of North Carolina shows that most people place houseplants in living rooms, bedrooms and sometimes kitchens. With the expansion of work from home, placing plants in home offices or other work areas can be helpful.

It is important to remember the warnings of many of these studies: some were conducted in highly controlled conditions and mostly among students. They reflect snapshots of time, not long-term effects. And their real consequences for a more diverse group of people – such as the elderly or those in low-resource environments – may be different. But it is difficult to ignore the amount of research that shows that houseplants have a significant positive effect on mood and physical health. So, since we spend more time indoors – whether because of the pandemic, work or time – maybe it’s time to pick up some houseplants.

Lala Tanmoy Das is a PhD student in New York who is doing research in molecular cardiology. Find it on Twitter: @TanmoyDasLala.

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