Science says that gardening boosts dopamine
A few years ago, I was reading a scientific paper on soil microbiology, just like you, and a scientist wrote something that really blew my mind.
She said there is a bacteria found in the soil, called Mycobacterium vaccae, often called M.vaccae for short. She said that these bacteria were a type of natural antidepressant, and contact with them had been shown to increase serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex, which in turn modulated your anxiety levels, making you feel happy and relaxed. Putting your hands in the soil actually scientifically improves your mood.
What’s more, harvesting something you’ve grown triggers the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, the same neurochemical released when you eat something delicious, have good sex, or get a row of fire emojis in the Thirst trap. Photo on Gram.
“Do you want to know why people garden?” This world wrote. “Because it makes you really happy.”
Now I don’t want to dismiss the entire field of microbiology. Obviously pasteurization and penicillin were great. But I read this, and I thought, Was taxpayer money wasted on this research? Because of course gardening makes you happier. Of course, we knew that already.
I have a medium sized garden, usually quite messy in an Auckland suburb. I grow a lot of vegetables and herbs, and have planted about 20 different fruit trees. I also mess around with ornamental plants, especially perennials. And I’ve been thinking about ways gardening makes my life better.
Some of them are very obvious. Time in the garden is time spent outside, and I spend most of the rest of my day indoors: working, eating, sleeping, rolling around on the floor, etc. My mood is always boosted by spending time outdoors and feeling the sun on my skin. In fact, while research shows that the average New Zealander spends about 90 percent of their time indoors, within their home, work or school, it has been proven time and time again in more scientific studies that spending time outside will boost your mood, as well as improving your mental health and well-being. Emotional and provide cognitive benefits.
Less sitting, more doing
I once saw someone wearing a T-shirt that said “garden” is a verb, not a noun. Although I’m not sure this person needs to teach grammar for a living, I accept his broader point. Gardening is a literal word, and there is a mental aspect to it as well. Even when I’m walking around my backyard, lifting dahlia tubers, covering roses, etc., it all requires moving. Modern life – or my modern life, anyway – involves a fair amount of sitting while looking at a screen. So, it’s fine to just use my body, pulling, digging, twisting and bending. I even enjoy feeling tired after working in the garden. It’s nice to feel the satisfying fatigue of physical exertion rather than the frustrating, low-level exhaustion one feels after spending a day fighting traffic and needlessly copying emails.
There are some additional benefits to gardening too, for me at least. I don’t want to use outdated store-bought terms like meditation or mindfulness, but spending time in the garden allows my mind to focus and be in the moment; Like making a jigsaw except it’s not completely useless. I used to think that gardening gave me a sense of control over my life – since almost everything that happened in the world lay outside my influence, my garden was a place where I could change things and cause things to happen. But increasingly I think the real lesson is almost the opposite; There is much in the garden that is beyond your control, and much that may surprise or amaze you. The real lesson is that your garden, and the natural world, is not something you can stand outside of and control, but rather something you are a part of. There is tremendous satisfaction and sense of responsibility that comes with this awareness for me.
I remember speaking to a NZ Gardener reader who was about to turn 100 and still spent up to four hours in his own garden every day. I asked him why. He said it’s a good way to stay active, and he obviously loves spending time outside. But he also told me, even though it’s fairly likely that he had spent most of his life at this point, that gardening gave him an investment in the future. He said that every work you do in the park is an act of hope, trying to create a better future. I think about it often in my own garden, that I am spending time contributing to a more abundant and beautiful tomorrow. Who couldn’t rejoice in that?
“This Makes Me Happy” is a 1News series about the things that bring us happiness in life.
All photos by Sally Tagg (cropped from originals) and provided by Correcting vegetables from scratchBy Joe McCarroll (Upstart Press) $49.99, available now.