Can Flowers Really Boost Your Mood?

Sunday, April 24, 2016


One of the things that frustrates me most is when I read an article online that provides recommendations or prescriptions for living better, cleaner, greener...and they don't cite their sources. In this vein of petty frustrations, I recently read that flowers can improve mood, pain management, and a slough of other humanly ailments. Unfortunately for me as a curious clinician, the article failed to cite its sources. Not even so much as a hyperlink. Such shenanigans!

It did get my mental faculties a-churning, though. I am particularly ill-equipped at gardening. I have been surrounded by the most miraculous gardeners throughout my life, and yet none of their earthly powers ever seemed to rub off on me. The green thumb, I have not. If flowers really can aid the management of pain-which we have aplenty thanks to Jeff's physical disability-then it seems like a good idea to start bringing home the blooms.

While I cannot pretend to be even a mediocre garden, my knack seems to lay in the preservation of fresh-cut flowers. Give me a bouquet at the beginning of May, and may you look upon those verdant blooms again in June. Ditties aside, I can keeping cultivated flowers alive for 3-5 weeks. I learned this skill in graduate school through trial and error, and it's a great source of pride.

Is it really flowers, or is it something else? 

In 2005, Haviland-Jones, Rosario, Wilson, and McGuire conducted three studies on the ability of cultivated (i.e. freshly cut) flowers to induce positive emotion. In their experiments, men and women were given flowers and their immediate and long-term reactions were studied. The experimenters posit that the fresh flowers were the cause of various positive socio-emotional responses, including the Duchenne smile, a measurable physiological reaction that activates mirror neurons in the brain between the person smiling and an observer. An example of this is when a mother smiles at an infant, the infant may smile back. The Duchenne smile elicits a reciprocal response.

Initially, as I read the study, I grew concerned that the concept actually measured was altruism. Altruistic behavior is when we do something for another person without the benefit of reward to the self or reciprocal behavior. You may recognize this in the concept of "paying it forward." However, the study used controls (e.g. fruit, candles, pens) and found statistically significant correlations between participants receiving flowers and the Duchenne response. In addition, the researchers took into account participants' gift preferences and age, and still found that flowers were correlated with a positive mood effect.

Interviews following the first experiment in the study revealed that the flowers participants received were placed in communal spaces in their homes, suggesting secondary emotional effects for others living in their homes. During the second experiment, social behaviors related to proximity also tended to increase between strangers. The third experiment, which centered around mood in seniors residing in a retirement home, found that the presentation of floral bouquets was correlated with improvement in episodic memory tasks. In addition, the researchers noted that the positive mood produced following implementation of the floral stimulus exceeded even their own measurements; they received hugs, kisses, and thank-you notes. Remarkable, right?

Additional Benefits

"There is a growing body of evidence supporting the need for a positive emotional environment for optimal health, social and cognitive processes" (Haviland-Jones, Rosario, Wilson, & McGuire, 2005,  p.107). Studies from around the world are taking note that flowers have positive health effects. The hypotheses vary:

  • Cultures around the world assign significance and symbolic meaning to flowers, and these associations are learned by each successive generation. With the advent of the Internet, these extrinsic meaning systems are shared with a wider audience and it further enhances their relevance. 
  • In terms of evolution, humans are foragers as much as they are hunters, and we have come to recognize that budding and blooming flowers are environmental cues for food. They provide seasonal signals for both humans and other animals. 
  • Flowers are natural mood enhances because they are "super-stimuli" (Haviland-Jones, Rosario, Wilson & McGuire, 2005, p. 124). They possess visual symmetry, most have a generally pleasant odor (though there are notable outliers), exhibit vibrant colors, and exude pheromones, all of which other research has demonstrated is mood-enhancing by nature and attractive to certain parts of the human brain. Interestingly, human beings have a strong preference for symmetry, particularly in other human faces. 

Others researchers have noted additional benefits of flowers. Park and Mattson (2008) found that hospital patients who kept flowers in their recovery room reported more positive emotions, less fatigue, and lower ratings of pain following abdominal surgery. Additional literature reviews conducted by these researchers found that flowering plants may also remove pollutants, increase humidity, and improve overall air quality. The act of caring for plants also helped improve mobility and flexibility in patients following surgical procedures. Park and Mattson (2008) noted that these latter effects may be more pronounced with potted plants as opposed to fresh-cut blooms due to their ability to survive for longer periods of time.

Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital has actually developed a horticultural therapy garden, known as an Enabling Garden, for these reasons. As awareness of the benefits of horticultural therapy have increased, research has taken on the subject of developing evidence-based garden planning to ensure therapeutic design and implementation. You can learn more about horticultural therapy from the Horticultural Therapy Institute and the American Horticultural Therapy Association.

If reading research articles isn't your thing, then pop over Get Green Be Well's interview with Kelli Ellis, a design psychologist and TV personality on the HGTV channel. She provides great advice for using flowers to make your home a more beneficial space. I really enjoy the element of self-reflection in planning to introduce flowers to your home. If a room seems to missing a certain psychosocial element, what type and color of flowers might enhance the space? A ready example is lavender. When I want my bathroom to be a relaxing, calming space, I spruce it up with fresh lavender and add three-five drops of lavender therapeutic-grade essential oil to my bathwater.

My abolsute favorite flower is the Gardenia jasminoids, or gardenia. When we lived in California, my mother-in-law (one of those miraculous super-gardeners) tended several gardenia bushes along the entryway to her home. We would eat dinner at their house on Sundays, and heaped on top of the foil-covered leftovers were always clippings of velvety gardenias lovingly-wrapped in damp paper towels. When Jeff and I were married, I wore gardenias in my hair. Unfortunately, gardenias are highly toxic to many animals, including goats and cats, so growing them invites trouble with these curious critters. Because cultivated gardenias are also difficult to find, I use perfume-grade essential oil in my diffuser to disperse the scent of gardenias in my living room, where we spend the most time. Because of the positive memories and nostalgia I associate with the scent, it's an instant mood booster.

Potted, planted, fresh-cut, or faux? 

One of the things that Jeff and I have been considering for some time is incorporating flowers into our home. We enjoy the vibrant colors, sweet scent, and liveliness they bring. Currently, we have potted Schlumbergera (Holiday Cactus) and Angelina Stonecrop. We also have a little fuschia orchid plant that our realtor gifted us the day we received our keys. It bloomed for months and is now resting.


When we first moved into our home, I planted tulip bulbs and various vegetable seeds, but sadly, they never came to sprout. I realized later on that it is because I planted them too deep, and they didn't get enough sunlight. With the amount of rain we have received this year, they are probably a soggy, moldy mess now. In addition to those poor seedlings, I managed to ruin an evergreen sapling. We live in the Evergreen State, and I killed one of the hardiest, most prolific trees in the state. Clearly, I'm not cut out for gardening. Luckily, the previous owners did an excellent job of planting especially hardy plants throughout the property, and the rain and sunshine they receive from our natural climate is enough to keep them alive.

We have also contemplated buying faux florals for several reasons. They are easier to maintain, they are less likely to be eaten by our indoor cats, and they don't need sunlight to keep looking beautiful. While they tend to be expensive on sites like Wayfair and Etsy, we recognize that their cost eventually makes up for itself in comparison to buying fresh flowers from the grocery market every few weeks.

The potted foliage plants we currently own are doing well enough, but we really enjoy blossoms. When I used to work in downtown Seattle, I frequently nipped over to Pike's Place Market and bought the $5-$10 bouquets sold there. The arrangements are brilliant and always fresh, and they last well. For the size, variety, and abundance of flowers that normally are exorbitantly priced at your average florist, the fiver or tenner was a bargain. Now that we have moved significant further north, we don't have the same opportunities to freshen up the house that we used to.

Since purchasing our home and its attached acreage, we have most certainly observed an improvement in our health. We spend more time outdoors, we work the land, and we feel rejuvenated and revitalized. It has certainly had a positive impact on Jeff's mobility and stamina. As we near our decision on whether to invest in cultivated flowers or faux florals for our indoor environment, we are taking into consideration what the research states and other factors such as time, energy, availability, cost, and effectiveness. We welcome suggestions and recommendations moving forward.

Until next time!

References

Haviland-Jones, J., Rosario, H. H., Wilson, P., & McGuire, T. R. (2005). An environmental approach to positive emotion: Flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, p. 104-132. Retrieved     from http://www.aboutflowers.com/images/stories/HealthBenefits/ep03104132.pdf

Park, S.H., & Mattson, R. H. (2008). Effects of flowering and foliage plants in hospital rooms of in     patients recovering from abdominal surgery. Hortechnology, 18(4). Retrieved from http://horttech.ashspublications.org/content/18/4/563.full.pdf

My apologies for the lack of hanging indent, fellow APA-stylers. The Blogger platform doesn't support it.

All photographs are my own unless otherwise noted.

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