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Home & Garden

The soothing power of plants

Find out how a flower really can make your day
By Anne E. Stein
Contributing writer

Flowers have always been associated with cheering someone up, showing you care or making an environment feel more inviting. But research shows that this isn’t just a short-term reaction or random association — flowers and plants actually do make us feel happier and more positive overall, with those good effects lasting for days.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t get some kind of good feeling from being around flowers, and it’s one of the easier ways to bring nature into the home,” says Dr. Katherine M. Hanson, Ph.D., a Swedish Covenant Hospital psychologist. “It brings a connection of peace, contentment and generally positive emotion and feeling.”

Several recent studies have set out to find how effective flowers and plants can be. In one study, Harvard University psychologist Nancy Etcoff had flowers delivered to half a study group, while the other half received a candle or food basket.

In less than a week, those who received fresh flowers reported increased feelings of compassion and kindness for others. They also reported feeling less negative and having more enthusiasm, energy and positive feelings at work.

Three studies by Dr. Jeannette Haviland-Jones, a professor of psychology and founder of the Human Emotions Lab at Rutgers, showed that cut flowers are a powerful, positive-emotion producer. In one study, women presented with cut flowers reported more positive moods up to three days later, while the control group that got chocolates did not.

In another study, men and women in an elevator who were given a single daisy showed more positive social behavior — smiling and standing closer to the flower-presenter — than those who didn’t receive a flower, or who instead received a pen.

In the third experiment, elderly patients who received two bouquets over two weeks (vs. those who received one or none) showed enhanced memory and less depression. Of the group, 81 percent experienced reduced levels of depression and 72 percent scored higher on memory tests than the no-flower group. This has spawned more studies on whether dementia can be slowed by being around nature and flowers.

“When we receive flowers, it’s associated with the idea that someone cares about me,” says Dr. Hanson, explaining why people may react so positively. “And when I see those flowers I’m reminded of that.”

Buying flowers for yourself might also be a good thing. “I buy most of the flowers in my home, and that’s an affirmation that I’m important enough to give myself the pleasure of seeing this every day — that my home’s important, that I appreciate my surroundings, that I feel good about where I live,” Hanson says.

Potted plants seem to have similar effects. A 2008 study in the journal Preventive Medicine found that hospital patients with a plant in their room were less stressed than those without a plant. In another study (by University of Nevada Cooperative Extension researchers) 18 assisted-living residents from ages 75-102 took four indoor gardening classes and were then given a plant to tend. They reported after the class having more control over their lives and feeling healthier and happier than before the class.

“I think we could generalize some of the research from cultivated flowers and say that plants in general seem to calm people and this, in turn, can promote a feeling of wellness and healing,” explains Dr. Hanson, who is participating in a flower-arranging class at Swedish Covenant Hospital this summer.

“When I'm doing deep relaxation exercises with people (either in the hospital or in therapy) and they’re asked to think about a favorite place that’s relaxing to them,” she said, “they always come up with a place that’s in nature.”