Less stress, more relaxation – the psychological miracle of houseplants


Thanks to indoor plants, we feel more comfortable and less sick. But the search has only just begun.

Building, Concrete, and Asphalt: While new streets and homes are constantly being built around us, it is not surprising that people are in dire need of everything that grows and becomes green. Many Swiss bring nature into their homes – monstera, calathea, ivy: people feel better when there are plants around.

Plants relieve stress

To date, little research has been done on the specific effects of houseplants on psychological well-being. However, in the past twenty years, the results of social sciences in this field have increased significantly. Basically, the positive impact of nature on human well-being is well documented scientifically. “We can relax well in nature and reduce stress,” says environmental psychologist Nicole Bauer. Even mental illnesses such as depression can reduce the experience of nature.

Stress, relaxation and well-being

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According to Bauer, stress is usually understood as two biological reactions that are not “bad” in the short term. On the one hand, adrenaline is released through the spinal cord, and on the other hand, a slower reaction takes place, controlled by the hormone, releasing cortisol. Blood pressure rises, breathing becomes faster and alertness increases. The latter is important when it comes to recreation in nature. Because if you go for a walk in the woods, for example, the exact opposite happens to you. Stress response decreases.

Whether it’s a tree or a potted plant: It doesn’t really matter, the positive effects are obvious anyway, according to Bauer. A study from the Netherlands, for example, clearly showed that employees are better off when there are potted plants in offices. Employees called less sick and were happier with their work. Schoolchildren also showed similar positive effects thanks to indoor plants. Surrounded by plants, they can focus better. As a result, her academic performance improved.

Questions about color and shape remain unresolved

But what makes plants so good for us? Is the color green what makes us relax? “I’d like to know that, too,” Bauer says. “But we don’t yet know to what extent plant colors and shapes play a role,” says Bauer.

Experience Nature and Relaxation: Two Popular Theories

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Two theories prevailed about how nature affects human health:

  • An evolutionary psychological stress recovery theory from the 1980s states that people are especially able to relax in nature because the environment evokes interest, pleasure, and serenity. A flower meadow or a river attracts our attention and thus limits negative emotions. Stress level decreases. So well-being is a physical and emotional response to the natural environment.
  • Attention recovery theory is different. It is exhausting to focus our attention on a specific task because we have to block out other stimuli to do so. Over time, this ability diminishes and we feel tired. The theory put forward by American psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan explains relaxation in nature by saying that the natural environment does not require focused attention. This is especially possible, for example, when we are fascinated by a birch tree or a sunset without effort.

An environmental psychologist recommends buying only houseplants we love. “I hate rubber trees,” says Bauer. If one of them was in her living room, it would have more negative effects on her mental health. According to Bauer, purely positive biophysical effects such as increased humidity and reduced pollutants in the air will not compensate for negative emotions. In principle, the filter function of plants tends to be overestimated in quantitative terms. “And if you only have one plant in the room, you won’t notice many of these effects.”

Nicole Power

environmental psychologist

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Nicole Bauer conducts research at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL). An environmental psychologist specializes in the effects of nature on human health.

Another important point is the care of the houseplant. “If my plant is doing well, it deserves me, so to speak,” says Bauer. Arise from this feeling of contentment and serenity. A study from Taiwan confirms this.

The problem: an eco-friendly and houseplant fanatic

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Anyone who is environmentally conscious and wants to live with as little ecological footprint as possible can have a problem with indoor plants. Tropical houseplants often come from far away and are not sustainably bred. When a person has a sustained self-concept, this can lead to certain inconsistencies called cognitive dissonance. “This in turn may reduce the positive psychological effects of houseplants,” Nicole Power suspects.

In terms of sustainability, it is also interesting that biodiversity enhances our recovery. An environmental psychologist collaborated on a study looking at factors that promote recreation in urban parks. The results show, among other things, that the more species of plants in the garden, the more relaxed their classification.

Pictures of plants are also useful for us

Here’s why: The plants or forests around us don’t have to be physically around us in order to feel better. Even pictures of landscapes allow us to relax.

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