I really like my houseplants. They do make me happy.
This summer I have been trying to propagate some of the succulents and I have enjoyed seeing their progress and learning something new.
But does that mean that the plants themselves contribute to my wellbeing?
Could I replace them with crafts or colouring books?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I mean if they make you happy then they make you happy.
But you see I have a scientist in my head that’s going ”hmm.”
I think it’s important to ask these questions because their answers might mean better resources in mental health.
If we know something improves wellbeing, we can encourage others to participate thus, improving their wellbeing.
Equally, if we know something doesn’t work we don’t waste energy and resources.
This, I believe should be the ultimate goal of science.
Going into the google search, my one preconceived notion is that they will only make you happy if you like plants already.
So let’s find out the science says.
What do you mean by wellbeing?
From what I can see online, ”wellbeing” seems to refer to two things,
- Psychological wellbeing
- Air quality
It’s important that when you answer a question like this that you figure out what it is that you are trying to find out.
That being said, you may have a different definition of wellbeing in relation to plants, it means something else to you to care for a plant.
Whatever that is I would love to hear about it so leave me a comment.
For the purpose of this post though, psychological wellbeing and air quality are what we are going to focus on.
You make me so happy!
Psychological well-being is tricky because it is hard to define.
Is it happiness? Calm? Just better?
For me, I would say all of the above and from what I can see for research it is all of the above and more.
Just a note that I am not referencing the actual papers. This is because I like the reader to have reasonable access to the information. Most research papers are not available to free to the public. So I use online articles, books or magazines, I am just very careful that I use reliable sources.
According to an article in Psychology Today, there is some evidence that being around plants lowers blood pressure, increases productivity, changes perceptions of space, raises job satisfaction and lowers anxiety in people recovering from surgery.
However, the writer also points out that the research into these benefits compares spaces with plants to spaces without.
So when I ask could you replace the plant with a colouring book, this research suggests maybe.
The writer makes another point that I had not thought of and that is that there is a cultural significance to plants.
When a person gets married they carry flowers. Flowers are brought to celebrations. When someone is sick and in need of cheering up, we bring them flowers.
So the link between emotional well-being and plants does appear to be ingrained.
In an article by Scientific American research suggests that having a plant in a workspace increases attention. Although it was pointed out that the conclusions in the research are inconsistent.
For instance, in some tests, only women were better able to pay attention and in other men. It was suggested that this is because there are lots of ways to measure attention.
Overall it would seem that plants do seem to improve well-being though as Scishow Psych points out, nobody really knows why.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Most of the claims of houseplants purifying the air in your home or office come from a NASA researcher called Bill Wolverton and his 1989 report.
In the experiment, a number of plants like Ficus, English Ivy, Bamboo palm and a number of others were put in small containers and exposed to VOCs. The plants in most cases cleaned their air of the pollutants.
VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds. Some materials used in the building of offices and homes emitted these compounds in small amounts and were thought to cause respiratory irritations, skin rashes and drowsiness.
Wolverton believed that in order to keep our living and workspaces clean of harmful chemicals we should keep houseplants.
After all humans have always been dependent on plants.
Since man’s existence on Earth depends upon a life support system involving an intricate relationship with plants and their associated microorganisms, it should be obvious that when he attempts to isolate himself in tightly sealed buildings away from this ecological system, problems will arise.
Wolverton concluded that low light-requiring plants had the “potential” to improve air quality.
Wolverton went on to write books and start a company advocating the benefits of houseplants.
So that’s that for most online articles. NASA proved it, case closed and nothing more to discuss.
Well not really. Sorry.
According to an episode of Scishow answering this very question, results of lab experiments don’t always carry well into real-life conditions.
The plants in the experiment did clean their own air but in very small containers, so you would need a lot of plants to clean your home.
So while yes the experiment does suggest that plants have the power to clean air, their use in homes is far from proven.
According to an article in Time Magazine, there is little evidence to support the idea at all.
It’s interesting because I watched a video by the New Yorker reporting on millennials in New York with small apartments filled with plants. I mean from floor to ceiling and I thought why and how?
Even though the research does not support the idea that having some houseplants improves your air quality at home, I bet those twenty-somethings in New York have some of the cleanest air in the world.
I bought my first cactus when I lived at home with my parents to brighten up my tiny bedroom.
I was 19 and going through a breakup. I suppose I thought it would cheer me up.
It didn’t but that’s a lot of sadness to put on one tiny cactus.
I do think it brightened up my bedroom. In fact, I think that even though plants don’t add light to a room, they do make it brighter.
That makes me feel less anxious.
I’m not completely sold on the air purifing bit.
I would be especially sceptical if you put a tiny a plant in a big room. The exexperiment used a small space so I wouldn’t be happy saying the can purify a whole room.
There seems to be more evidence for their effect on mood and while nobody knows why, here are my suggestions.
- Taking care of a living thing outside of myself
- Learning something new
- Sense of achievement
- Interacting with nature.
I think Wolverton was on to something when he said detaching ourselves from nature would cause us problems. A houseplant probably cannot cure all the ills of modernity, but I do think bringing a little nature into the home can help.
Is that not after all the origin of the Christmas tree?
Below I have included a graphic with some of my own houseplants and my favourite quote about growing things.
Image by Shannon Sweeney
What are your thoughts? Leave them in the comments!