When it comes to strengthening our mental health and finding happiness, common suggestions include taking up a creative hobby, meditation, physical activity, and building solid relationships with others. But did you know that getting green-fingered with gardening could also play an important role in achieving and maintaining happiness and mental well-being? Indeed, the mental health benefits of gardening are many.
That could perhaps help explain why gardening seems to be the national pastime in many countries, such as in the UK. According to a recent survey, 80 per cent of British people believe gardening had a positive impact on their mental health, and that the benefits were even better than hitting the gym.
Survey participants also said that gardening gave them a stronger sense of achievement than tasks like tidying up or cleaning. Furthermore, a research study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that gardening for as little as 10 minutes per week had a positive impact on health and reduced the risk of developing heart disease.
When looking into these studies, what stands out is that we don’t need to spend endless hours in the garden, or even have a traditional garden at all to enjoy it mental health benefits. That's because gardening is within everyone’s reach, and you can get started regardless space or time limitations, for example, using a window box to grow herbs. But first, let's take a quick look at where the concept of gardening for mental health came from.
The connection between people, nature and mental well-being is rooted in history and goes back to ancient Egypt, where royals who felt mentally restless were encouraged to go for walks in their gardens. Eventually, gardening was tested as a clinical therapy during the 18th and 19th centuries.
At around the same time, one of the founding fathers of modern psychology, Benjamin Rush, believed that getting hands-on (and hands dirty) in the garden had a healing effect on his patients, and a few decades later, greenhouses and gardens were added to rehabilitation units of hospitals who treated world war veterans.
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Fast forward to the present, and the concept of therapeutic horticulture is practised all over the world. From Italy to Singapore there are certified horticultural therapy gardens that bring the benefits of gardening for mental health to people of all ages and walks of life.
Smells great! Gardening boosts your well-being shutterstock/Dean Drobot
This renewed interest in gardening is also a result of to changing demographics. The number of elderly people continues to grow in many countries of the Western world, and many have found that gardening is a way of offering support to a growing segment of this population.
All this sounds really encouraging, but how exactly can gardening create a sense of happiness and well-being?
It's clear that gardening for mental health is more than a passing trend. Getting busy with plants is like an escape valve from the pressures and stress of everyday life, but there are other important benefits you won’t want to miss out on. Here are seven ways in which gardening and horticulture therapy can help if you're feeling lonely, low in energy and motivation or struggling with anxiety.
One of the main benefits of gardening for mental health is its ability to relieve stress. Researchers saw this relaxing effect when investigating bathing in green or forest bathing, the Japanese concept of walking in forested areas.
Gardening also provides a welcome break from our increasingly tech-dominated lives. A study found there were significant differences in mood when comparing participants’ response to two tasks: working on a computer and transplanting.
“In a recent survey, 80 per cent of British people believe gardening had a positive impact on their mental health... the benefits were even better than the gym.”
When participants were transplanting, they experienced lower stress levels than when they spent time in front of a computer. Researchers also noticed participants had lower blood pressure when transplanting, suggesting there’s a physical basis for the de-stressing effect of gardening.
Additionally, research led by Vrije University Medical Centre in the Netherlands showed that simply looking at an image of a green landscape induced relaxation, in contrast to the constant demands for attention of urban landscapes. “Short durations of viewing green pictures may help people to recover from stress,” van den Berg told The New York Times.
Gardening fosters a sense of grounding, as it helps us to reconnect with our roots as human beings. People who get involved in gardening often experience a deeper sense of belonging and connection with nature. This is no small feat: think about how disconnected the majority of people are from something as basic as the origin of the food they eat.
By contrast, gardening grounds you in the value of growing your own food – even if you’re 'only' growing herbs. This sense of grounding also applies to the social sphere. Gardening can help strengthen your connection with others and offers an opportunity to meet people with the same interests. Visiting your nearest urban garden or allotment can connect you with like-minded folk.
One benefit of gardening is reduced isolation shutterstock/Tania Kolinko
Staying in the present moment through mindfulness has a long list of benefits, such as reduced rumination and stress reduction. Gardening is a way of practising mindfulness as you need to concentrate on what you're doing. Furthermore, you can also take time to enjoy the beauty around you. Indeed, all tasks related to gardening (such as digging, pruning or weeding) force us to focus on the task in hand, and in doing so we’re more likely to stay in the present and put aside our worries, even if it’s only temporarily.
Another benefit of gardening for mental health is that you can achieve a sense of worth and purpose. This happens when you get directly involved in something that is hands-on and you can see the end result of your effort. There’s a sense of pride and validation in choosing the plants, herbs and flowers that make you happy, and the pride you feel with nurturing them. In fact, studies show that gardening causes an increase in feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, as helping plants grow stimulates our identity as nurturers.
Gardening is related to better brain function and to improved concentration and memory. Some studies have found that it can even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. One long-term study from Australia followed nearly 3,000 older adults for over 15 years, tracking incidence of all types of dementia and assessing a variety of lifestyle factors. The researchers concluded that daily gardening was the single biggest risk reduction for dementia, reducing incidence by over a third – 36 per cent to be precise.
“People who get involved in gardening often experience the mental health benefit of a deeper sense of belonging and connection with nature.”
The factors that cause Alzheimer’s and its progression poorly understood. However, as gardening involves so many of our critical functions such as learning, strength, endurance, dexterity and problem solving, it could be this combination that contributes to warding off the illness in older adults.
RELATED: How to talk to a parent with dementia
Indeed, gardening involves a lot of physical exercise and so is a form of physical therapy. Weeding, digging, carrying bags and pots around are all a good workout that can help you keep in shape. According to SAGA magazine, just half an hour of these fat-burning gardening activities can help shift a lot of calories:
What’s more, regular workouts can help you sleep better, and restful sleep is another essential element in achieving good health.
Gardening creates a sense of purpose and achievement shutterstock/Alexander Raths
You can strengthen your immune system by simply being exposed to natural light and Vitamin D while you’re gardening outdoors. In turn, this helps build resistance again chronic disease. Interestingly, it's also been suggested that the dirt you end up with under your fingernails may help to boost immunity! Mycobacterium vaccae, a so-called 'friendly' soil bacteria which is common in garden dirt has been shown to alleviate symptoms of allergies, asthma and psoriasis, all of which can stem from a weakened immune system.
In fact, Mycobacterium vaccae has also been shown to reduce depression, so don't be afraid to get your hands dirty: the bacteria can be absorbed by inhalation or ingested from your vegetables.
These are only the proven benefits of gardening for mental health. In this post, we’ve seen that gardening is a natural anti-depressant that can have a powerful reset effect in our minds and bodies. Getting green-fingered is an accessible activity that requires minimal investment. If you have a balcony, a window sill, or even hanging space in your home, you can start gardening and experience a boost in happiness and well-being. It’s that simple! ●
Main image: shutterstock/iko
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A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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