Published in Kindred 22 as part of Weapons Of Mass Induction
While modern recreation — television and computer games in particular — stimulates the stress-producing sympathetic nervous system, greenery activates the opposite parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and relaxes us. Greenery can wean us off the need for the constant high stimulation of television images and other sources of the buzz. It’s even used to help treat drug addiction. While promoting Mother Nature may seem earnest, holistic and woolly, this new scientific line of inquiry is certainly not. For most of us, horticulture’s effects on our well-being are perhaps accepted but thought of in vague terms. Yet the study of plants and trees truly is a new domain of medicine; it’s just that unlike pharmaceuticals, Mother Nature doesn’t have a benefactor to lobby on her behalf. As a point of comparison with television, here are some examples:
• While both violent and non-violent television has been consistently linked to increased aggression and violence, exposure to greenery is being found to diminish it within neighbourhoods. All things being equal, the greener the surroundings, the less ‘wife beating’ occurs and fewer crimes are committed against people and property. Greenery seems to help people to relax and renew, reducing aggression. And greenery also increases social interaction and cohesion.
• Further research is looking at the way plants have a powerful effect on people’s ability to cope with poverty. Poor people with a slightly green view were found to be much better able to manage major life issues. A researcher remarked, ‘It is striking that the presence of a few trees and some grass outside a 16-storey apartment building could have any measurable effect on an individual’s capacity to manage the most important issues in her life, with an effect size comparable to that of major factors such as health and age.’ Yet again, greenery’s effect on attention is cited as the main factor. A study published by the British Medical Association finds that people in cities live longer and are healthier when they are exposed to greenery. This is everything that television works against. Not only does television erode attentional resources but the content of television makes viewers feel even more deprived. It seems that exposure to greenery enables people to cope and make decisions more effectively.
• Beyond our mere exposure to greenery is the hands-on type of relationship — gardening. The British love of gardening is actually saving people’s lives and extending them. Not only is gardening now considered to be of medical benefit in terms of exercise, it also involves contact with plant life, increasing the benefits even further. For example, an hour of gardening a day can reduce your risk of dying prematurely by 28 per cent and help reduce coronary heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Even 30 minutes of gardening a day on most days of the week that doesn’t produce a noticeable improvement in your physical fitness will protect you from certain chronic diseases.
In comparison, even one-and-a-half to two hours of television is being linked with an array of well-established risk factors for serious illness later in life and premature death.
• While television is making people fatter, greenery can do the opposite. The Early Learning Centre has found that nearly nine in ten children spend almost the whole weekend stuck indoors, most in front of a television screen, at a time when the Royal College of Physicians is concerned that the UK has the lowest level of physical activity for children in Europe. Luring us away from passive indoor electronic distractions to gardening or the outdoors is vital.
• Just thinking about plants affects our physiology for the better. Simply visualising images of nature scenes induces significantly greater relaxation, including a lower heart rate.
• Caring for plants has often been found to be so engrossing that people lose track of time: soft fascination at work. There has been an enormous interest in ‘boosting’, ‘building’ or simply ‘giving’ children higher self-esteem. Television erodes both adult and child self-esteem in a wide variety of ways. A study of 120,000 children found that gardening increases their self-esteem and reduces the degree of stress they experience.
• And while television feeds disregard, entitlement, instant gratification and impatience, through watching the development of their plant, children learn caring, responsibility and the ability to defer gratification by thinking in the longer term.
Gardening enables you to focus on one thing — a live plant — something undeniably wholesome, and to gain a sense of control and completion by doing one thing well — planting and caring for it. In a globalised world of multimedia, where we may feel a sense of learned helplessness over events beyond our control, the simple act of gardening can restore our locus of control, helping us put things in perspective. And perhaps a revival of the escapist potting shed is what every couple needs for a happy marriage.