You’ve probably heard of various self-care hacks before: writing your emotions down and keeping a journal, expressing gratitude, meditating and practicing mindfulness. But here’s one that you probably haven’t considered yet—having plants inside your home can have a positive effect on your wellbeing, and it’s an effective, low-key way to nudge yourself towards simply feeling better.
Intuitively, we know that nature’s good for us. Basking in a garden, trekking through a mountain, sitting underneath a tree, lying down on a field and gazing up at the stars—all of these recharge our souls and drain the tension we’ve accumulated from a stressful day. Being stuck for too long inside concrete walls triggers a sense of being trapped, and windows looking out over green scenery are a welcome addition to most homes.
Psychologists have confirmed this through a 2014 study (Nieuwenhuis, Knight, Posthem, & Haslam) from Journal of Experimental Psychology, which examined how office workers performed when inside a green versus lean office space. Their findings state that “the most toxic space” a human being can stay in would be a stripped down, harshly utilitarian office, devoid of plants, souvenirs, photos, and other distractions; in turn, they’re more able to focus when surrounded by plenty of plants. Researchers from another study (Kestens, Chaix, Shareck, & Vallée, 2015) have also found out that people who live in urban areas tend to have worse mental health than those in rural areas, exhibiting higher risks for depression and anxiety. While the exact cause of this hasn’t been pinned down yet, it’s possible that disconnect from nature is the culprit.
What if you do live in the city and you’re not planning to move anytime soon, or you just don’t have access to gardens, parks, forests? No need to despair—if you can’t bring yourself to nature, then you can bring nature to your home. The beauty of this is that it works even on a small scale: you don’t need an entire greenhouse to reap the benefits. A few plants inside your home are enough, or heck, even a single plant (succulents, if you want minimum babysitting?) or a bouquet of flowers on your desk.
To further convince you, let me describe in detail how plants are good for your wellbeing:
1. You get to breathe cleaner air
We breathe around 23,000 times a day, taking in oxygen from the air around us and circulating it to every cell in our body. If we’re so fastidious about the food that we eat, what about the air we breathe? Plants complement us perfectly in that they release what we consume, and vice-versa: they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, giving our lungs a larger supply to draw from. Air indoors isn’t also as clean as you’d think it’d be—it contains a lot of pollutants like benzene and ammonia, and a 1989 NASA study (Wolverton, Johnson, & Bounds) shows that plants can actually absorb these through their leaves and render the air much cleaner.
2. Your immune system gets a boost
The Japanese have a practice called forest-bathing or shinrin-yoku, and it’s exactly what the name implies: spending time in a forest. Forest-bathing knocks out your stress, lowers your blood pressure, makes you better at fighting off diseases—all because of essential oils (phytoncides) that plants emit to keep themselves safe from germs and bugs. These phytoncides are inhaled by humans, and our body’s reaction is to produce more natural killer cells, which give our immune system a huge boost (Li, 2010). It’s not surprising that plants are becoming increasingly common in hospital rooms, given that they speed up the healing process! Another side benefit is they contribute a lot of moisture to the air, which flu viruses hate, and it becomes less likely for you to get colds, sore throats, and dry coughs (Fjeld, Veiersted, Sandvik, Riise, & Levy, 1998).
3. You can focus better and ignore distractions
Plants can be your study buddies too! Try this out next time: bring your huge textbook (or overwhelming amount of paperwork), then compare how long you can stick with it when you’re sitting in a barren room versus when you have a bunch of potted plants right beside you. You’re bound to be able to focus (and memorise) better in the company of plants (Raanaas, Evensen, Rich, Sjøstrøm, & Patil, 2011). This surprising effect has been replicated in a lot of studies, demonstrating that people perform more high-quality work and increase their memory retention up to 20% (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008), and children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) become significantly more engaged with their tasks (Faber & Kuo, 2009).
4. Your mental health improves
Richard Louv describes nature-deficit disorder in his book “Last Child in the Woods,” correlating the present generation’s alienation from nature with rises in childhood depression, Attention Deficit Disorder, and obesity. This is in line with what Edward Wilson calls “biophilia,” which refers to our innate desire to connect with nature or other living things. Being around plants can ease loneliness and depression and also promote feelings of optimism and peace. In particular, plants tend to lower your sympathetic nervous system activity, which flares up when you’re experiencing a stressful fight-or-flight response (Lee, Lee, Park, & Miyazaki, 2015). This makes them especially well-suited for relaxation places such as spas and retreat centers.
5. You become more compassionate
In order for your houseplant to survive, you more or less have to take care of it, even if it’s as minor as watering it every day or moving it closer to sunlight. It’s a two-way relationship: for everything that plants give, they also need your care. Much like having a pet, this gives you an increased sense of purpose and empowerment, while letting you practice mindfulness (Langer, 1976). Do this day by day, and you slowly start to feel more connected to the environment. Surprisingly, this spills over into your relationships with people: we know from studies that being exposed to plants makes you more compassionate towards others, and more likely to help (Zhang, Piff, Iyer, Koleva, & Keltner, 2014). Caring for your plant, in a strange way, becomes a path to cultivating kindness and empathy.
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
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Fjeld, T., Veiersted, B., Sandvik, L., Riise, G., & Levy, F. (1998). The effect of indoor foliage plants on health and discomfort symptoms among office workers. Indoor and Built Environment, 7(4), 204-209.
Kestens, Y., Chaix, B., Shareck, M., & Vallée, J. (2016). Comments on Melis et al. The Effects of the Urban Built Environment on Mental Health: A Cohort Study in a Large Northern Italian City. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 2015, 12, 14898–14915. International journal of environmental research and public health, 13(3), 250.
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Louv, R. (2008). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books.
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Raanaas, R. K., Evensen, K. H., Rich, D., Sjøstrøm, G., & Patil, G. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31(1), 99-105.
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Li, Q. (2010). Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 9-17.
Zhang, J. W., Piff, P. K., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Keltner, D. (2014). An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 37, 61-72.