Why Plants Make People Happy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
Why Plants Make People Happy

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Did you grow up with plants in your house?

When I was a kid, I ping-ponged between my mom and dad’s very different houses, but one thing they both had in common were houseplants. From my dad’s house I remember the lush ficus trees in a sunny corner of the living room. At my mom’s there was an enormous pencil cactus, and African violets that we’d feed periodically with stinky fish emulsion.

I didn’t really think too much about this until I was in my mid-thirties, and Albert had the idea to get some plants for our apartment. The only plants I’d had in the intervening years were succulents that friends had brought as hostess gifts. I over-nurtured them, and they never lasted long.

Because we’re not ones to do things halfway, we stopped in at a plant sale and left the proud parents of eleven houseplants. A leafy blue star fern took up residence on our kitchen island. A tall bird of paradise anchored our bedroom. Little begonias got tucked into the bookshelves. It was beautiful, for sure, but more interesting was how much happier we felt at home once we added plants.

Why Plants Make People Happy

As I shared in this post, adding plants made our home feel much more alive. It seems obvious, but remembering that we evolved surrounded by living things and now spend most of our time in inert, manufactured settings, it’s not surprising that it feels good to bring a little of the outside in. Humans are biophilic (nature-loving) creatures at heart.

There’s been a great deal of research to show that houseplants can have profound effects on our well-being. This post breaks down the scientific research on why houseplants make people happy, and are so beneficial for the mind, body, and spirit.

Plants Increase Creativity

Being around plants — and even just the color green — has been shown to promote creativity. The relaxing connotations of nature can help free the mind, improving problem-solving abilities and creative thinking.

Plants Can Reduce Anxiety and Stress

Plants have a calming and restorative effect on people, reducing stress and anxiety. Large-scale studies conducted in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands show that people living in greener areas have a lower incidence of anxiety and depression and display an ability to recover more quickly from stressful life events than those in less green areas. Access to plants has also been shown to reduce blood pressure, which is often used as a physiological measure of stress. Bringing indoor plants into your home can provide a dose of these anxiety- and stress-reducing benefits.

houseplants at home

Plants Improve Attention and Productivity

Just adding a few plants to a windowless room has been shown to improve attention and productivity. Research subjects had quicker reaction times and reported higher levels of attentiveness when working in the presence of plants compared to those who weren’t.

Plants Improve Sleep Quality

Living with plants can promote better sleep health. Research has shown that those who spend more time in natural environments tend to experience better sleep quality and longer sleep duration which has a ripple effect on so many other health benefits.

Plants Encourage More Generous Behavior

Research has demonstrated that spending time in nature can increase the emphasis we place on positive intrinsic goals such as personal growth, meaningful relationships, and generosity. Being in the company of plants can make us more pro-social and more willing to act in ways that benefit others, leading to more caring attitudes and generous behavior.

Plants Can Reduce Aggression and Even Violence

Studies of prison inmates and Alzheimer’s patients have shown that exposure to plants can mitigate the frequency of aggressive and hostile behavior. Natural stimuli are effective at reducing irritability because they evoke a response that is simultaneously joyful and calming (“emotionally positive” and “low arousing” in psychologists’ terms).

These calming effects can be powerful — to the point where they might even reduce violence. Frances Kuo and William Sullivan, the founders of the Landscape and Human Health Lab at the University of Illinois, have found significant correlations between a lack of green space and violence among residents in large housing projects in Chicago. In a notable study, they examined police crime reports for ninety-eight buildings in the Ida B. Wells housing project, finding that buildings with more surrounding vegetation had 50 percent fewer crimes than those with minimal greenery.

Why Plants Make People Happy

Plants Can Add Curves to an Angular Space

Angular objects, even if they’re not directly in your path as you move through a space, have an unconscious effect on your emotions. Research has shown that people implicitly associate curved forms with safety and positivity, while associating sharp angles with danger and negativity. Plants, with their rounded leaves and organic growing patterns, are a great way to incorporate more curves into a space.

Plants Keep Us In Tune With Natural Cycles

Research has found that a period of anticipation can significantly enhance the joy we find in experiences. While manmade objects don’t change over time, plants grow and change, often following seasonal patterns or Circadian rhythms. Caring for plants whose leaves open and close with the sun, or that cycle through blooming, opening, and growth, brings a sense of anticipation into daily life. These regular moments of anticipation disrupt our sense of hedonic adaptation and bring future joy into the present, ensuring we always have something to look forward to.

Reminder: Sign ups for the 5 Secrets to Designing a Feelgood Home are now open! Check the schedule for this year’s free live workshop here.

This post features research and writing contributions by Ava BooydeGraaff.

January 26th, 2024


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