Ellna Yu Chun-ha loves flowers. They bring her joy and enhance the look of her home.
"Just looking at a pretty arrangement relaxes me instantly, which is just what I need after a long and stressful day," says the safety instructor, who lives in Hong Kong. "And no matter where I place the arrangement, it has the effect of brightening up the space and making the area look more inviting."
Most people buy flowers only on special occasions and for other people, but Yu buys them for herself and for no reason. When she was 19 and living as a student in Melbourne, Australia, she would walk to a nearby flower market once a week and pick out a colourful bouquet for herself and her flatmate.
Since moving back to Hong Kong, she has continued to treat herself with flowers, spending as little as HK$100 (S$17.60) for a simple arrangement to thousands of dollars for something more elaborate. Her favourite blooms are pink peonies and purple and blue hydrangeas.
Yu usually buys her arrangements at M Florist, a flower studio in Hong Kong's Central business district. Owner Ken Tsui Kee-yiu, who started the business in 2016, agrees that having flowers in the home can have an uplifting and mood-boosting effect.
"Whatever their colour or variety, flowers have a way of cheering us up and making us feel good," he explains. "I feel especially content and peaceful when I'm putting together … arrangements."
But don't just take Tsui's word for it - the science backs his claim. A 2012 Harvard Medical School study found that people feel more compassionate towards others, have less worry and anxiety, and feel less depressed when fresh cut flowers are present in the home.
According to lead researcher Nancy Etcoff, assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, study participants who had fresh cut flowers in their home for less than a week had increased feelings of compassion and kindness for others.
Those who placed flowers in parts of their home where they spend most of their time reported feeling less negative and looked forward to seeing the blooms first thing in the morning.
Interestingly, this happiness boost impacted the participants' mood at work, too - they were more likely to feel happier and have more enthusiasm and energy at work when flowers were in their home living environments.
"As a psychologist, I'm particularly intrigued to find that people who live with flowers report fewer episodes of anxiety and depressed feelings," Etcoff said in a media release. "Our results suggest that flowers have a positive impact on our well-being."
There is also evidence that having flowers around you when you are recovering from surgery can speed up the healing process.
A clinical trial, whose results were published in 2008 in the journal HortTechnology, revealed that patients who were recovering from an appendectomy needed to take fewer painkillers and had more positive physiological responses when their hospital rooms contained plants and flowers, compared to patients whose rooms had none.
According to the researchers, those with plants had lower blood pressure and heart rate, lower ratings of pain, anxiety, and fatigue, and more positive feelings and higher satisfaction about their rooms.
It is well-known that being surrounded by nature has a stress-relieving and mood-boosting effect, but what makes flowers so special? Some researchers believe that domesticated flowers are simply "natural rewards" - that is, they have evolved over time to make us happy.
Just as their scents, colours and shapes have evolved to attract the bugs and birds that help them with cross-pollination, flowers have "learned" what the human brain finds pleasing - in this case, bright colours, sweet smells and symmetrical shapes.
Of course, this is just a theory, one put forward by Rutgers University professor Jeannette Haviland-Jones, and her team, in their research article, "An Environmental Approach to Positive Emotion: Flowers", published in 2005 in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.
In the paper, they state that positive emotions are essential for optimal health, and social and cognitive processes.
They write: "Our hypothesis is that cultivated flowers fit into an emotional niche - their sensory properties elicit human positive emotions. The flowering plants are thereby rewarding to humans and in return, the cultivated flowers receive propagation that only humans can provide."
Emily Wong Wing-ying, the founder of Floristry by Art of Living in Hong Kong, says that making your own happiness-inducing arrangement is easier than you think. For your workspace, she suggests filling a vase with white tulips or dark calla lilies.
Besides looking elegant, Wong says that these flowers have a stress-relieving effect and are a great reminder to lighten up.
For your home, she recommends a combination of peonies and different styles of eucalyptus. Peonies look stylish and luxurious, while eucalyptus helps freshen up the space.
"I also love how these flowers smell," Wong adds. "Peonies have a sweet, intoxicating fragrance that never fails to put a smile on my face, while eucalyptus has a minty, almost pine-like scent that instantly calms me whenever I feel overwhelmed."
WHAT ABOUT FLORAL THERAPY?
Is it time for us to start taking floral therapy a bit more seriously? Researchers in Japan developed a structured floral arrangement (SFA) programme for people with neurocognitive disorders to improve their visuospatial memory (a person's capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects).
The patients were asked to follow an instruction sheet to arrange real flowers and leaves. They then took the arrangement back home to enjoy with their carers.
According to previous studies using the SFA programme, putting the arrangement together was found to improve the patients' visuospatial memory, and it encouraged the patients to continue the cognitive training.
The researchers also wanted to know whether there was any impact on the carers' mental health. They found carers who received the floral arrangements enjoyed better quality of sleep and improved emotional health overall.
Having the arrangements at home was also found to encourage conversation between carers and the patients.
The pilot study, published in late 2018 in Trends In Medicine, backs the idea that floral therapy may not just benefit patients but their carers, too. The SFA programme, specifically, was found to have helped both carers' mental health and patients' cognition, without requiring carers to attend the class.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.
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