A 2015 study found that 88% of people cited mental wellbeing as a reason for heading out into the garden. The process of nurturing plants — and even just being around them — has many benefits for your mind. And science can prove it!
Keeps Your Focus Outward
Repeatedly, studies have shown that people are happier when they spend time focusing on the needs of something outside of themselves — it gives us joy and a sense of purpose and empowerment.
“Garden therapy” was first explored through a scientific lens in the 18th century. Dr. Benjamin Rush, recognized as the “father of American psychiatry,” documented the positive effect that working in gardens had on individuals with mental health challenges.
Not only does gardening pull us out of our heads, but scientists have also found that gardening decreases cortisol. This is the hormone released when we’re under stress. In one study, people performed a stressful task and then were randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading. Researchers measured the level of cortisol in their saliva. They discovered that both gardening and reading decreased cortisol, but the decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group.
Studies show that time spent in nature limits rumination (the act of thinking repetitively about our problems). In one study, participants who took a 90-minute walk in nature reported decreased rumination. Researchers recorded a decrease in neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with rumination.
Teaches About Good Nutrition
Our brains function better when the body is fed well. Because pre-packaged and highly processed food is so widely available in the United States, many Americans (especially children) don’t understand where their meals really come from. A survey of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at an urban school in California found that only 22% of the kids knew that pickles are made from cucumbers. More than half of them did not know that onions and lettuce were plants. Gardening can reconnect people with the source of their food and nutrition.
Moreover, for people with eating disorders, studies have shown that growing their own food helps make eating food less scary. Cultivating a garden gives them a sense of control and ownership over what they are putting into their bodies, producing a calming effect.
Builds Good Habits
Gardening is a positive habit — just like exercising daily or walking your dog. Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher in the field of positive psychology, calls these experiences “micro-moments of positive emotion.” When we structure our lives around healthy routines, we have opportunities to experience positive emotions like satisfaction, relaxation, joy, and a sense of accomplishment – and over time, these emotions become our habits!
Gardening is a series of small, finite tasks: Prune this limb. Dig that hole. Turn off the hose. By focusing on one task at a time, and ONLY one task at a time, our mind begins to quiet. We are able to meditate on thoughts. Mixed with yoga-like poses, the act of gardening becomes a physical and mental meditation. Studies have shown that these types of meditative exercises can lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure, increase attention span and memory, and elevate mood.
Helps You Sleep Better
Gardening is hard work. So not only does the fresh air and physical exercise tucker you out, but some plants have been proven to help you doze off as well. Smelling lavender oil has been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate, allowing you to fall asleep more easily, as well as improving the quality of your sleep once you’ve fallen asleep.
Research reveals a connection between soil bacteria and serotonin. In a 2016 study, mice were inoculated with soil bacteria known as Mycobacterium vaccae. The neurons in their brains that produce serotonin were activated. According to the study authors, “Data suggests that exposure to environmental microorganisms… may confer health benefits, including mental health benefits in subjects with stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD and major depression.”
A Reminder to Remember the Big Picture
And lastly, there is something just plain ole’ magical about gardening. With sun, water, soil, and care, a tiny seed turns into a gorgeous mature plant. It’s a tiny miracle. Gardening reminds us of one really important thing — that the world is a truly amazing place, and we get to be a part of it.