Humans are a funny bunch. Having first evolved from nature, over time we have systematically eliminated it from our lives.
So much so, that by the most recent estimates we spend an average of 85% of our day inside.
When this is coupled with the fact that most of us live in rural environments, the natural world almost seems like an abstract thought, rather than reality… and as you probably already know, this isn’t great for our health.
While we can still function quite happily in a technological environment, most of us have a nagging thought that we should go outside more, and that we should fill our apartments with houseplants. But why is this so? Is it just a hang-up from our grandparents telling us to get our hands dirty with endless ‘back in my day’ one liners? Or is there something more driving these thoughts?
Today, recent studies on the effects that the natural world has on our health is helping to shape our understanding of just why our grandparents were so hell bent on getting us outside… and it turns out they were right.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology looked at how interaction with houseplants affected stress levels when compared to completing a computer related task.
One group of participants started the study by potting a houseplant (for all you plant lovers it was a Peperomia Dahlstedtii). This involved getting down and dirty, completely hands-on with the soil and focusing purely on the plant during the task.
The second group was subject to a computer related task in which they worked on a continuous word processor like job.
After the first day of experimentation the groups switched tasks and the results were measured.
As you probably guessed, the plant related task was much more beneficial to the participants stress levels than the computer related task.
Feelings of comfort, naturalness, and relaxation were extremely high after potting the plants. While during the computer test the participants felt uncomfortable, stressed, and artificial.
So what was happening?
What was gathered by this experiment was that stress levels differed greatly between each task. When playing with soil and potting the plants, the participants had measurably lower levels of stress- both physiologically and psychologically. The study showed that this was due to nature’s ability to suppress sympathetic activity on the autonomic nervous system. When sympathetic activity decreases, heart rate does too, as well as muscle fibers relaxing which leads to a more soothed and calm feeling throughout the body.
This was a drastic change to the computer task results where participants had measurably higher sympathetic activity, which in turn means more stress and unease. There was also an increase in diastolic blood pressure- that also contributes to a feeling of stress.
Although this study was only a small sample size, the results were still a win in the battle of nature vs technology. It shows us in a way one mechanism in which the human body is hardwired to the natural world. Although the task only involved one small house plant, it will hopefully inspire a little more exploration outside.
Imagine starting your day by potting a plant, or taking a walk through a park. In doing so you would have calmed your stress levels and at least be at a good starting place to tackle your workday, which is no doubt indoors, and computer related.