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Going Green During COVID-19: What Houseplants Can Do for Your Lockdown Health

A woman with a content smile carries a large houseplant into her home.

Oscar Wong/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • A study on more than 4,200 people found that houseplants brought emotional benefits to 74% of participants during COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Caring for plants can give you a sense of purpose and help you feel less stressed, experts say.
  • Artificial plants, spending time outdoors, and even looking at photos of nature can offer similar benefits to people who live in spaces where real plants won’t thrive.

Most people think of houseplants as a way to beautify an indoor space. But beyond aesthetics, having a few plants scattered around your home may also provide important benefits to your emotional wellbeing during the pandemic, according to a new study published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening.

The report, which surveyed more than 4,000 people from around the world, found that having vegetation at home boosted emotional wellbeing for about 74% of participants amid COVID-19 lockdowns. People with houseplants also tended to experience negative emotions less frequently than those with no greenery at home.

“Plants are more than just home decor, they add a whole new dimension to your otherwise lifeless space at home,” says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Community Psychiatry in Newark, California.

Here’s what the research says about the relationship between houseplants and mental health while stuck at home, along with alternative ways you can reap the benefits of greenery if your place isn’t exactly plant-friendly.

Findings on Houseplants and Mental Health During the Pandemic

For the new study, researchers from the University of Seville's School of Agricultural Engineering in Spain, as well as other international universities, wanted to learn about how having plants at home impacted people’s emotional welfare while confined during the pandemic.

They developed a 38-question survey to gather information on participants’ demographics, length of time they spent in confinement, potential exposure to COVID-19, living situation, number of plants they had at home, interest in gardening, and other related details.

Rashmi Parmar, MD

Plants are more than just home decor, they add a whole new dimension to your otherwise lifeless space at home.

— Rashmi Parmar, MD

The survey was distributed primarily through social networks, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, from April 25-May 4, 2020. It received responses from 4,205 people, around 30% of whom were from Brazil, 24% from Greece, 20% from Spain, 9% from Italy, and the rest from 42 other countries.

The results showed that nearly three in four respondents felt that plants made a positive impact on their mood during lockdowns. More than 55% of respondents said they wished they'd had more plants in their homes at that difficult time. What’s more, participants who had no indoor plants and little natural light at home experienced negative emotions (like sadness, fear, and stress) more frequently than those with houseplants. 

The study also revealed some interesting trends about the growing interest in maintaining houseplants throughout the public health crisis. Just over half of participants said they increased the amount of time they spent caring for their plants during lockdown, while nearly 63% said they wanted to devote more time to plant care once things got back to normal.

The findings may allude to a forthcoming trend in bringing more houseplants into the home once the majority of people are vaccinated and the pandemic finally comes to an end.

Yonatan Kaplan, MD, a naturalist and resident at the psychiatry department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, points out that the findings of this study should be taken with a grain of salt, since the research relied on self-reported data.

“Self-report is a notoriously unreliable method of data collection for various reasons from poor insight, mis-recollection, outright lying—or, in sum, human error,” he explains.

But despite the downsides of the way this survey was conducted, the overall study was strengthened by its large sample size of participants, and the fact that its results echo the findings of other studies on plants, nature, and mental health. For example, another study released in November 2020 found that people who spent more time outdoors or simply looked at greenery from their windows at home had more positive mental health outcomes early on in the pandemic.

Why Plants May Help Us Feel Better

While the study, itself, does not establish why plants were associated with improved mental health during the pandemic, mental health experts say there are science-backed explanations for this trend.

“Research has shown that actively interacting with plants can reduce physical and emotional stress, through effects mediated by the cardiovascular system, particularly by reducing sympathetic tone and by lowering blood pressure while promoting relaxing and soothing feelings,” explains Dr. Parmar.

Dr. Kaplan adds that nature-derived health benefits may have something to do with the “biophilia concept, which proposes that human comfort from naturalistic elements is rooted in psychological adaptions from our evolutionary history.”

Houseplants can also remind us of the positive experiences we’ve had in public green spaces that may be less easy for people to access safely during the pandemic, thus boosting our mood, says Dr. Parmar.

“Urban green spaces have been linked with positive emotions and reduced stress level,” she explains. “Having an indoor plant may serve as a reminder of such positive memories, as well as the physical effects you might have experienced during those relaxing trips with nature.”

Plus, plants can even alleviate some of the loneliness many people have been coping with over the last year, says Leela Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry.

“Like animals, houseplants can improve individuals’ mood by allowing them to care for something other than themselves,” she says. “This can create a sense of connectedness, which can alleviate feelings of anxiety and loneliness.”

The benefits come from more than just looking at plants, though—they also stem from watering, pruning, and caring for the vegetation, as well.

Drew A. Pate, MD

Watering and nurturing plants can serve as a mindfulness, calming exercise for many people, and taking care of another living organism can bring about a real sense of purpose within ourselves, allowing us to make a difference and feel better about our contributions to the world around us.

— Drew A. Pate, MD

“Watering and nurturing plants can serve as a mindfulness, calming exercise for many people, and taking care of another living organism can bring about a real sense of purpose within ourselves, allowing us to make a difference and feel better about our contributions to the world around us,” says Drew A. Pate, MD, chief of psychiatry at LifeBridge Health in Baltimore, Maryland.

Getting Benefits From Plants in Low-Light Homes

People who live in homes with big, sunny windows can easily add a few houseplants to their home for a greater sense of wellbeing. But where does that leave the millions of urban dwellers around the world, many of whom live in cramped apartments with little natural light?

Yonatan Kaplan, MD

Putting up posters of trees, paintings of landscapes, and artificial plants are all ways to incorporate naturalistic motifs without owning an actual plant.

— Yonatan Kaplan, MD

“The benefits of nature are not limited to direct exposure. Studies have shown just seeing images of green spaces when compared to images of urban settings show similar benefits to nature exposure,” says Dr. Kaplan. “There are even studies on using virtual reality to create simulated nature experiences for stress reductions. Putting up posters of trees, paintings of landscapes, and artificial plants are all ways to incorporate naturalistic motifs without owning an actual plant.”

You could also try spending more time outdoors, following all pandemic safety precautions (like masking and social distancing), to feel better during the pandemic.

Sunlight and fresh air are important not only for plants but for people,” said Dr. Pate. “If you live in a setting where those aren’t easily accessible, it is important that you do some sort of outdoor activity on a regular basis to allow yourself to be exposed to the sunlight and to breathe fresh air. It can be as simple as a stroll around the block or going to a local park, but any regular outside activity will help lift your mood and energy level.”

The key is to try to find a mindful way to engage with nature, whether that’s through a walk in a local park, gardening in your backyard, watering your favorite potted succulent, or simply hanging plant-inspired artwork in your bedroom.

“It helps a person slow down for a few moments from the hustle and bustle of the daily routine,” says Dr. Parmar. “It provides a much needed distraction from the undue stress and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic in your day-to-day life.”

Try a few different activities and interventions to see which ones work best for you.

What This Means For You

The pandemic has made a profound impact on many people’s mental health. This study shows that bringing plants in your home may offer some much-needed emotional benefits while we’re still stuck at home. 

If you live in a home with little to no natural light (or you just don’t have a green thumb), you may be able to get similar benefits through artificial plants, spending time in parks, or even looking at images of nature. The key to getting a mood boost from plants and nature is to engage with them mindfully.

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  1. Pérez-Urrestarazua L, Kaltsidia MP, Nektarios PA, et al. Particularities of having plants at home during the confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemicUrban Forestry & Urban Greening. Published online November 24, 2020:126919. doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2020.126919

  2. Soga M, Evans MJ, Tsuchiya K, Fukano Y. A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemicEcological Applications. n/a(n/a):e2248. Published Nov. 17, 2020. doi:10.1002/eap.2248