There is something comforting about dirt. It often evokes pastoral images of days gone by and feelings of fond childhood memories where the only care revolved around the perfect mud pie. It’s hard to put into words the calm feeling you can achieve surrounded by greenery and the earthy smell of nature, however, that doesn’t mean it isn’t quantifiable.
Documented back to the early 19th century, there has been a fascination and nod toward the psychological benefits of nature in the scholarly community, but there was no data or true theories as to why that might be. Revolutionary works penned by the likes of Theodore Roszak in his Voices of the Earth introduced many to the word “ecopsychology,” and in turn helped facilitate a whole new generational understanding of our role in the world we live in.
Still, it’s surprisingly difficult to find information on the health benefits of plants. I must’ve contacted dozens of people who work in mental health before I finally looked up a former college professor of mine and asked if he could point me in the right direction.
Finding Sources in an Information Desert
Eureka! He put me into contact with Dr. Mark Harvey, a psychology professor of the University of North Carolina, Asheville. Dr. Harvey has been interested in social, ecological and environmental psychology for about 23 years and proved to be a fountain of information surrounding the beneficial qualities of spending time in our natural environment. When I asked him why there were so little resources available on the benefits of nature for one’s mental health, he told me that in the long history of psychology, environmental psychology and ecopsychology was “in its infancy.”
Luckily for us, Dr. Harvey was able to guide me to resources and give some personal insight into the science behind why we find peace among plants.
Why Are We Drawn to Nature?
Dr. Harvey wrote that “two of three leading theories that try to explain why we need to commune with nature—in spite of the fact that industrial civilization can provide subsistence without us having an emotional connection to the natural world—emphasize our evolved preference for nature (i.e., the Biophilia hypothesis and the Psycho-evolutionary Stress Reduction Theory).
“The third explanation, Attention Restoration Theory, also has its roots in the idea that for the vast majority of our time on earth, we lived in close, intimate contact with the natural world. But the latter theory emphasizes the restorative consequences, especially with respect to our ability to focus the attention of communing or connecting with nature.
“Living so much of our lives in built environments, mostly disconnected from the source of life, is a relatively recent phenomenon on the paleontological timescale. According to these theories, conscious awareness is not required when we feel a need to be in a natural environment. But I think we are aware of the need because we learn to associate feeling good with being in nature.”
Horticulture therapy refers to an individual or group of individuals that engages with plants and provides for their needs in an environment that doesn’t allow outside distractions during therapeutic activity. The structure, as conducted by an organization, simply provides a place where people can come together and plant in a lush environment under the supervision of a horticultural therapist. The following are types of beneficiaries of horticulture therapy according to the North Carolina Botanical Gardens at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte:
Older adults in senior centers, nursing homes, retirement communities and adult day-care facilities.
Children in hospitals, school-based programs and residential treatment programs.
People with disabilities in residential, day treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Many others, including prison inmates, hospice clients and at-risk youth.
However, anyone can engage in their own horticulture therapy by doing something as simple as caring for a houseplant.
Dr. Harvey states, “I do not think that one needs to be a client of a horticultural therapist in order to experience the profound benefits that gardening can provide to its practitioners, such as a feeling of accomplishment or a sense of connection to something far greater than the self.” Some other benefits include:
1. Stress relief
To a large extent, I believe many of us are under the mistaken assumption that stress is a natural part of life, and we do little to combat the high levels of stress we undergo daily. “The effortlessness of processing information in the natural world is a welcome antidote to the inevitable toxicity that results from over-activation of the stress response (i.e., the release of the corticosteroids and their accompanying legion of physiological changes),” Dr. Harvey said.
2. Addressing food deserts in urban areas
What are food deserts? The USDA defines them as “defined parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and healthy food providers.” People without access to fruits and vegetables will suddenly have more nutrition in their diets, in addition to other benefits simply from gardening.
3. Instill a sense of neighborhood pride
A public garden has been shown to reduce vandalism and graffiti, in addition to giving neighborhoods a central area to feel connected with neighbors.
4. Help you sleep better
As strange as it may seem, being in tune with nature’s rhythms has been shown to increase restfulness and regulate natural sleep patterns. In the 1990s, a sleep scientist named Thomas Wehr conducted several sleep studies and concluded that humans were better regulated by natural patterns of light and dark. He inferred that modern humans are most likely chronically sleep-deprived which is why we take up to 15 minutes to fall asleep and then try our best not to wake up at night (as opposed to biphasic patterns during long nights of sleep).
What If I Don’t Want a Garden?
No worries. You don’t need a green thumb to gain benefits from the natural world. Buy a plant for your office, go for a walk at your local park, or face your desk so it overlooks a bit of greenery outside. Any exposure to plants seems to provide some health boost.
So, What’s the Formula for Optimal Health?
That’s a trick question. There isn’t one. I already asked. “I have no formula nor insightful advice other than the observation, supported by research, that spending some time outside most days, perhaps by tending a small garden or going for a short walk, provides tangible psychological and physical benefits,” Dr. Harvey states. “The challenge is that the temptation to stay inside on the computer and in front of the TV is hard to resist.”
So, there you go. Resist temptation, get yourself outside and spend some time in the greenery. You’ll find yourself in better mental and physical health in no time.
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