The Well-being of Gardening

Sunflower in Allison Ehrman’s Garden
Sunflower in Allison Ehrman’s Garden

I adore Beltane. In my part of the world soft green leaves are unfolding on all the trees, it’s getting warm enough to leave coats in the closet, and there are colorful flowers everywhere. Best of all, my husband and I are finally able to plant our summer garden.

Having spent the first 30 years of my life in Texas, it was a shock moving to Maryland and learning that I had to wait until the end of April or early May to start a garden. In the beginning I tried to defy Mother Nature by moving ahead early on my own schedule, only to face the frustration of frozen seedlings and floundering shoots. But the wheel of the year moves in its own time, specific to each geographical region, and I’ve learned the patience necessary to wait until the soil has warmed enough to nurture young plants and seeds.

Spending time in the garden is a great source of happiness for me. As a student of Positive Psychology, I understand that this is because I experience something called “flow” while I am working with the dirt and plants. Flow means “being in the zone.” Wikipedia defines it as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.” And this is exactly what I experience when I’m gardening.

Research has shown flow to be closely linked to an increase in overall well-being, productivity, and happiness. It’s so wonderful that my garden can provide all of these things to me. No wonder I can’t wait to get back out there and get my hands dirty again this Beltane!

Gardening as an analogy for life

But gardening also provides me with a wonderful analogy about life that can also help promote my well-being. Many times we focus on what is wrong in our lives and seek to eliminate those things in order to be happier or healthier. Bad habits, negative attitudes, mental health issues, and poor relationships certainly need to be addressed, but removing them from our lives is not enough to create well-being. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology and former president of the American Psychological Association, uses the concept of gardening to educate people about what he and other researchers have discovered over the course of the past few decades. He tells his students that spending all of their time in the garden pulling weeds won’t guarantee a healthy garden. A plot of land without weeds is simply an empty plot of land. You have to also plant seeds, water them, and tend them carefully as they grow.

The same is true in our lives. It is not enough for us to work to reduce or eliminate the negative aspects of our existence. We must also plant and encourage the growth of positive traits and activities. In some ways, this is even more important because healthy habits and attitudes go a long way in reducing bad habits and attitudes, and they foster a sense of happiness and well-being which also help quash our desire to return to unhealthy behaviors.

Ways to use Beltaine

One challenge I have accepted for the upcoming season of Beltane is to think about three things that went well over the course of my day each evening just before I go to sleep. This is a small seed I can plant in my life, and I have been assured that the activity will become addictive. Research has shown that doing this simple act for six months causes people to have more life satisfaction and markedly less depression and anxiety. What a beautiful flower for my garden.

I encourage you to use the season of Beltane, the season of growth, to cultivate your own garden – both literally and figuratively. Search for seeds that you can nurture and tend in an effort to increase your own well-being and happiness. The VIA (Values in Action) Institute on Character has a list of 24 character strengths and virtues, if you’re looking for some ideas on where to start. Each of them has been scientifically demonstrated to be linked to general well-being and happiness.

Take time to water and nurture the good in your life. You won’t regret doing so.

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