Have the Winter Doldrums? Science Shows Flowers Make Us Happy
As a resident of the greater Seattle area, sometimes the weather here brings me down emotionally. A study of medical claims by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association showed that Washington State has a diagnosis of depression rate of 4.9% compared to the national average of 4.4%. Depression is scientifically linked to all sorts of other diseases and conditions. People who are diagnosed with major depression are nearly 30 percent less healthy and have one or more serious chronic health conditions. Women are twice as likely to receive a depression diagnosis as men. Both in Washington State and nationally, depression is on the rise.
People who struggle with seasonal affective disorder often feel hopeless to change their situation. Science shows that little changes to our environment can have a positive impact on our psyche.
We all know that receiving gifts makes us happy, but did you know that there is scientific evidence that even smelling flowers causes happiness? You don’t even have to stick your nose into a bouquet of beauties and inhale deeply to reap the benefits. The effects take place with the slightest, almost undetectable aroma.
Doctor Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones of Rutgers University has done multiple studies in recent years showing the positive effects of flowers on emotion. There has been growing evidence in the scientific community for years that pheromones and odors have profound influence on human moods and cognitive processes. A full 3% of the human genome is used for detecting odors in the nose. This might not seem like much, but the only other system that takes up more of the genome is the immune system. Neuroscience also supports this link between aromas and emotion because both systems share common pathways through the system of nerves and networks in the brain. Aroma processing takes place in the amygdala, which is also activated by memories and emotions. Simply smelling a flower can affect your mood because it brings up emotional memories. Emotions can be triggered based on the memory of having smelled that scent before. Haviland-Jones focused on olfaction (the sense of smell) and flowers for these studies with some undeniable and surprising results. She noted an earlier study from 2000 showed that some flowers even mimic scents created by mammals to attract each other.
Throughout history, humans have been aware of this connection between floral aromas and positive environments. 3000 years ago, Persian scientists used Lavender oil to cleanse a sick room, and positive beliefs about fragrances at weddings creating positive outcomes for couples are found in ancient writings. In Egypt, the Pharaohs were surrounded by flowers when they were buried to ensure their acceptance into the afterlife. Today, in aromatherapy, floral scents are considered soothing and relaxing. They are regularly used to treat nervous tension, irritability, anxiety, stress, and depression.
Humans have many different smiles to express emotion, but did you know there is a special smile that psychologists have been studying for over a century because it is a scientifically proven method of observing true happiness? It’s called the Duchenne smile, and some people insist that it cannot be faked.
In one study, Haviland-Jones and her partners presented subjects with either floral bouquets, fruit baskets, or candles to thank them for participation. 100% of the subjects in the study presented the Duchenne smile within five seconds of receiving the bouquet. Following up, those who received flowers reported more positive emotion over the next three days!
In another study, Haviland-Jones gave multiple floral bouquets to subjects. Those participants who received more than one bouquet over several weeks reported the lowest levels of depression. The results were striking. They even invited the psychologists into their homes and sent thank-you cards, often with pictures of the bouquets they received.
In a third study, subjects in elevators were either given a single flower or a pen. Those who received flowers were more likely to respond with a Duchenne smile and they were far more likely to socially engage with the presenter. They moved closer to them, started new conversations, and looked directly at them.
Gender played no noticeable part in the results — men and women alike experienced the same emotional boost. In other studies, men and women who wore floral scented colognes reported better moods than subjects who did not. Clearly the smell from flowers drives something inside us to a better place.
Improved mood is not the only benefit to flowers. Memory has been shown to be improved with floral aromas. A 2004 study showed that when people read a passage of literature while exposed to the smell of flowers, they are more likely to remember the passage. These improvements in memory have been shown in another study to exist even when the aroma is so subtle that the participants can’t detect it.
Of course, the recipient isn’t the only person who benefits from a gift of flowers. Melissa Mercado-Denke, creative director of Campanula Design Studio in Seattle, Washington says “At Campanula Design Studio, we believe gratitude is the foundation of our relationships. We give and receive flowers and gifts for celebrations, in grief, and simply to express our love to one another. The act of giving nurtures our soul, providing comfort in times of sorrow and sharing our joy in times of celebration.”
Just being around the flowers can make us happy and now we have the scientific evidence to show us why. If Valentine’s Day or Mother’s day is approaching or if you just know someone who is down and needs a little emotional boost (even if that person is yourself), consider sending some flowers. You just might make someone healthier and happier.
*Much of the information above comes from Chapter 14 of “Handbook of Emotions” by Michael Lewis, Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. I highly recommend giving this a read if this article has piqued your interest.