Gardening, Hobbies, and Improved Mental Health

A community garden a few blocks from where I live has a sign on the fence surrounding the flower-filled plots announcing its origin during the Second World War: “Growing food to help our troops.” The garden is owned by the city, but volunteers oversee its use and help those who have never gardened before. Most plant flowers, but sometimes plots are filled with vegetables. There is a waiting list for plots, especially as the neighborhood is filled with apartment buildings and houses with miniscule yards that are too small for much horticulture.

Making more land available for additional community gardens does not have a high priority in “land use” planning, but perhaps it should. The benefits of a place where people can congregate to grow their tomatoes or tulips go beyond the pleasure of eating personally-cultivated vegetables or putting roses in a vase at home that come from one’s own rosebush.

Gardening May Help Elevate Your Mood

There is a growing (pardon the pun) perception that gardening, especially community gardens, may have an important benefit on general well-being, and specifically on elevating depressed mood. This was suggested in an article in Forbes describing the benefits of getting one’s hands dirty by digging in a garden, although the reasons for the elevation in mood are rather dubious. The writer references claims that inhaling microbes in the soil stimulates serotonin production, which leads to happiness and relaxation. Given what might be lurking in the soil, especially if animals are around, one is probably advised to avoid swallowing or inhaling anything in the soil. Moreover, serotonin is made only after eating foods that result in the production of the amino acid tryptophan, i.e., carbohydrate-rich foods. So the claims that mucking about in the dirt is going to increase serotonin are not consistent with our MIT scientific research.

A Community Garden Brings People Together

However, the writer is correct about the positive effect of gardening on well-being, and the positive result seems to be enhanced when the gardening is communal. A study in Singapore looked at measures of well-being among individual and community gardeners versus non-gardeners who engaged in other outdoor activities. The subjects rated themselves on measures of subjective well-being, stress, and resilience (self-esteem and and optimism). The community gardeners scored the highest on these indicators of well-being, suggesting the benefits of a community garden in an urban setting, according to the authors.

Gardening Can Improve Cognitive Impairment

Gardening may have a positive effect on mood that goes beyond improving a sense of well-being. Therapeutic gardening as an adjunct to other mental health interventions was tried in therapeutic institutions in Europe and the States as early as the 1800s. According to this review, gardening has been used as a therapeutic intervention for disorders such as cognitive impairment, as well as for children and adults with mental health problems, children and adults with learning disabilities, and adults going through physical rehabilitation. The gardening experiences ranged from passively looking at a garden to actively planting and weeding. Although these activities seem to be beneficial, the positive effects have been hard to prove in clinical studies because it has been difficult to measure their effects against other interventions. For example, would spending time in an art studio or a carpentry workshop, creating objects with one’s hands, be as beneficial as weeding or planting? And as the authors have found in their review of the literature, there seem to be no lasting effects once the gardening season is over.

Gardening Can Alleviate Anxiety and Reduce Stress

A more optimistic picture emerges from yet another review of published studies. The studies cited were geographically varied, although about one-third were carried out in the United States. The overall conclusion from these studies is that gardening seems to alleviate anxiety, depressions, and stress, increase physical activity, and enhance a sense of community. Both private backyard gardening and community gardening had these effects.

What is there about gardening that improves mood? Being outside in an attractive and peaceful environment, focusing on what the hands are doing and not what the head may be thinking, the positive effects of physical activity, sharing an activity with a family member or neighbor, and the joy in seeing something grow.

The Benefits of Gardening Outweigh the Frustrations 

Of course, there are also undesirable aspects. For example, picking off bugs, feeling like you can never keep up with weeding, the frustration of seeing newly arrived shoots eaten by urban or suburban wildlife, heat, cold, and wet weather. I have a friend who can never “harvest” her kale because the iguanas in her backyard get to the young leaves first. Another gave up gardening because weeds were the only plants that flourished in her backyard. Depending on where one lives, it is impossible to garden during several months of the year because of lack of sun and cold, or too much sun and heat.

Like everything else in life, gardening has “good” and “bad” aspects and it’s helpful to prepare yourself for all that gardening involves. To solve for some problems, one can always consider hydroponic gardens, ask experts for tips, or simply remind yourself that the benefits are worth tolerating the parts you don’t enjoy as much.

Repetitive Tasks Can Take Your Mind Off One’s Worries

Distraction away from one’s mood, stress, worry, and anxiety may explain much of the beneficial effects of gardening. Focusing on the repetitive tasks of watering, weeding, pruning, staking, and gathering the flowers or produce prevents focusing on one’s mood, problems, and sources of stress. Moreover, if gardening occurs in a communal setting, the isolation caused by mental disorders or cognitive deficits is minimized.

Communal Activities in General Can Elevate Mood

The positive association between gardening and mood has been described for other communal and individual activities in which the hands and brain are occupied in making something. Knitting, quilting, needlepoint, carpentry, and playing music together are examples in which focusing on something the hands can do diminishes our preoccupation with mood and worries. But gardening is unique because it has the advantage of getting us outdoors and, for a short while, engaged in our natural world.

Consider Taking up Gardening: You Can Keep it Simple!

A good friend told me she likes gardening but doesn’t like to take on too much. She’s just gotten her garden bed ready and is going to plant only tomatoes and lettuce, both of which grow very easily. And she got self-watering pots for flowering plants and herbs on her deck for aesthetic appeal and ease of cooking with fresh herbs. It doesn’t have to be complicated: start simple.

Have you thought of taking up a new hobby, or resuming one you used to enjoy? Consider gardening – it may improve your mood, increase your connection to other people, and it may even inspire blooming in other areas of your life as well.

If you’d like support and guidance for your mental and overall wellness on your path to your weight loss and wellness goals, we can help: we’re here for you!  We invite you to sign up for a complimentary consultation to learn more. We look forward to meeting you!

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