A view across Central Park in New York City, with skyscrapers in the background

Do plants make us feel better?

Scientists think being near greenery could improve our health

Humans have an in-built desire to be close to nature, according to a theory known as the biophilia hypothesis. Its supporters claim that green and natural surroundings are restorative, allowing us to relax, escape from stress and better focus our attention.

This, biophilia theorists say, is because the vast majority of our development as a species took place in the natural world. We evolved to adapt and respond to that environment, which left certain preferences for nature embedded deep in our minds. There isn’t any conclusive evidence to prove that this is true, but many pieces of research support the idea.

Office spaces and urban environments

Some studies suggest that simply being exposed to daylight or working somewhere with a view of trees can improve health and wellbeing. One 2008 study found that staff who worked in offices with living plants and windows were more satisfied with their work and reported better quality of life than those whose offices had neither.

And a larger UK study, surveying 10,000 people between 1991 and 2008, found that urban dwellers were happier and scored lower on a scale of mental distress if they lived in areas with more green space.

In fact, research has shown that contact with nature correlates with healthier childhood development, better concentration and memory, and faster recovery following illness or surgery. Even indirect contact with greenery, such as through pictures, seems to be beneficial in some cases.

Because of the strength of this supporting evidence, the hypothesis is being applied practically. Biophilic principles influence the design of schools, hospitals, offices and public spaces. There is even a hypothesis that adding vegetation to urban environments reduces crime.

Horticultural therapy

Biophilia is also being applied to help individuals. Horticultural therapy, for example, is used help people improve their wellbeing through outdoor activities, such as gardening. The therapists often work with people who have disabilities or mental health problems.

But the benefits of horticultural therapy may stem from it being a physical activity – the exact influence of nature on patients isn’t known. With so many things affecting people’s health and wellbeing, researchers have to constantly investigate what confounding factors may be influencing their results.

Lead image:

m01229/Flickr CC BY


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Plants’ in July 2016.

Ecology and environment, Health, infection and disease
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development