Thursday, June 17, 2010

The psychology of "green" gardening – is taking care of the planet good for the soul?

“Peter Rabbit’s experience aside, gardeners are probably nicer people,” Richard Ryan, PhD. Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at the University of Rochester

We all know the benefits that environmentally friendly gardening can have on the planet: less pollution less waste of our valuable water supplies and improved habitat for local wildlife, to name a few. And of course, what’s good for the health of the planet is good for our own health, as well. But when I ran across some new studies that indicate that gardening is good for the soul, I was determined to help find out if that tied in to why more and more people are practicing environmentally friendly gardening.

Personally, I’ve always felt that spending time in my garden is far better than spending time with a therapist. There is just something about working outside in nature that gets me more in touch with my inner thoughts. I have learned the answers to many of life’s questions while I am out there with my hands in the dirt.

So I was intrigued when I began to see the quote “nature is fuel for the soul” popping up all over the internet because of several studies co-authored by Richard Ryan, PhD, a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Education at the University of Rochester. Through their research, Ryan and his colleagues have concluded that spending time in nature not only makes people feel more energized but also leads them to be nicer, value their relationships more and to be more generous – definitely evidence that nature is good for the soul.

“When people are exposed to nature, it changes their attitudes,” Ryan said. “We’ve known for awhile that nature has an impact on people: in helping them heal faster and reducing their stress. But what our findings show is that it also makes people more pro-social. So when people are exposed to nature … they are more likely to have better feelings toward their community, want to give more to other people, and be more concerned with social outcomes.”

Since, for many working Americans, being in nature means working in the garden, I jokingly asked Ryan if he thought these studies indicate that gardeners are just nicer people. “I think it clearly stands to reason that gardeners are on average likely to be nicer people,” Ryan said with a bemused tone. “I don’t know if there is empirical evidence on this, (though I believe there are a few gardening studies out there), but it would be consistent with our research on positive relations between contact with nature and pro-social tendencies. So Peter Rabbit’s experience aside, gardeners are probably nicer people.”

Since being in nature (gardening) makes people more concerned with social outcomes, I wondered if this study could also help indicate why more and more people are starting to garden in a more environmentally friendly way. According to statistics collected in the National Gardening Association’s (NGA) 2004 and 2008 Environmental Lawn and Garden surveys, the number of households that practice environmentally friendly gardening increased from an estimated 5 million households in 2004 to 12 million in 2008. And this trend is expected to increase in the future. In fact, 89% of the households surveyed said that they thought practicing environmentally friendly landscaping was important.

“That could make sense,” Ryan said. “Our studies showed that when people are in nature, they are more in touch with their own core values and interests,” Ryan explained. “They feel more connected with the world as a whole. And this probably breeds more sense of responsibility for that larger whole.”

Since I had also read studies that indicated “doing good makes people feel good”, just for the sake of discussion, I asked Ryan if he thought that gardening in an environmentally friendly way might have its own emotional rewards.

“I think that theory is sound,” Ryan said. [Environmentally friendly gardeners could reap] “…both the wellness benefits of being in nature and the wellness benefits of being generative and good.”

To try to get more proof for my theory that environmentally friendly gardening provides extra “fuel for the soul”, I contacted Dr. Michael Steger, PhD, an Assistant Professor in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University who has done extensive research on what makes people happy.

“My best guess would be that people gain the most happiness and meaning from gardening when they garden in a way that is most consistent with their values and what they want to get out of gardening,” Steger said. “If people are gardening to serve a societal need or to help the planet through eco-friendly means, then doing so will make them happiest.”

According to the NGA survey referenced above, 73% of the people surveyed said that they garden in that way because it is better for the environment, so perhaps for those gardeners, at least, green gardening may bring them extra happiness.

“As much as it would fit with my own values to say that the 'best' kind of gardening takes the earth's considerations to heart,” Dr. Steger said. “I really don't think there's evidence for it.” And indeed, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find any scientific studies that have been conducted to help prove that eco-friendly gardening is better “fuel for the soul” than any other kind of gardening.

But from my own experience, I know that it is. And so, I would like to challenge you to help me prove it.

Join me on this blog as we share tips and hints about how to take a little bit better care of the planet while tending to our landscapes. Spend some time getting to know your landscape on a deeper level and find out what you can do to be more eco-friendly while you are out there. And then share your thoughts with us along the way. I think that you will find that your soul will be happier for it. But if not, at least your soil will be.

“A lot of times, we don’t really take time to immerse ourselves in nature, to really appreciate the surroundings that we have, the green living things that exist everywhere around us,” Dr. Ryan said. “We’re pretty busy, we’re rushing through life and we aren’t in touch with those things. What our scientific studies showed is that, to the extent that we really pay attention to the living things that are around us, it connects us more closely with the human race. “

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