The joys and tribulations of a field biologist (and hermit) studying
mongooses in the South African bush.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Look at this to feel happier
Today I decided to post some flower photos (yes, I did take them) but while I was sorting through the images I realised my mood was markedly improving.
Was this just me, or does everyone feel better after looking at flowers?
A quick trawl of the literature revealed that Jeanette Haviland-Jones, and her colleges from the State University of New Jersey, having been undertaking experiments to find out.
In their first study, the researchers presented 147 women with a gift: either a basket of fruit and sweets, a bouquet of mixed flowers, or a large multi-wicked candle on a stand (all three gifts were of equal monetary value and were considered equally desirable by a test group of 30 women). The researchers recorded the women's immediate reaction to the gift, and interviewed them (about their feelings and activities) both before and (2-4 days) after the gift-giving.
Women who received a bunch of flowers reacted more positively than those getting other gifts; 100% of them responded with a 'true' smile (which involves the muscles around the eyes, not just the facial muscles). The mood of those that received non-floral gifts didn't alter between the first and second interviews, but flower-receivers were significantly more positive, and they also increased their social interactions (e.g. contacting people, talking intimately, etc.).
In their second experiment, the researchers tested men too. They targeted 122 people who got into a university library elevator alone. They presented them with either a Gerber daisy (a brightly coloured flower about 4'' across) or a pen with a university inscription. They found that - regardless of their sex - people given a flower were more likely to respond with a 'true' smile, stood closer to the gift-giver and were more likely to start up a conversation, than people given a pen.
In the third experiment, the researchers sent bouquets of flowers to 113 elderly people living in retirement homes. The experiment lasted two weeks with the seniors keeping a log book of their social contacts and undertaking a final memory test. Half the people received one bouquet of flowers, one-quarter got two bouquets (a week apart) and the remainder received nothing (until after the experiment). Predictably, those that were given flowers showed an improvement in mood, with seniors that received two bunches feeling more positive than those that got one. Although none of the seniors changed how often they interacted with other people, those that received flowers did much better on the subsequent memory test.
I particularly liked the comments that the researchers made about their flower research.
"Some participants responded with such unusual (for experimental studies) emotional displays that we were unprepared to measure them... In many years of studying emotions, we have never [before] received hugs and kisses, thank you notes or photographs, not even for candy, doughnuts, decorated shirts or hats, gift certificates, or direct monetary payment; the flowers are different."
But why do people react like this?
Is it that we've learned to associate flowers with positive social interactions? But if this is the case, why did the men in these experiments react in the same way as the women? Giving flowers to men is not big in North American culture.
It seems more likely that our positive response to flowers arose early in our nomadic hunter-gatherer days. After all, flowers indicate that an area will be rich in food in the not too distant future. However, if our liking for flowers is related to food resources, wouldn't we be attracted more strongly to fruit or nuts (i.e. the actual presence of food) rather than flowers (the promise of food)?
Maybe the traits that flowers have evolved to attract their pollinators (usually insects or birds) are characteristics that humans also find attractive. People are known to find symmetry appealing and to be stimulated by bright colours. And more than 80% of commercially available perfumes contain floral fragrances.
Whatever the reason for our positive response to flowers, one thing is certain: you should get out there and enjoy some!
Haviland-Jones, J., Rosario, H. H., Wilson, P. & McGuire, T. R. 2005. An environmental approach to positive emotions: flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, 5: 104-132.
Having spent 16 years living in remote places in the African bush studying the social behaviour of mongooses, my own is non-existent. I survived 8 years in the desert, at the Kalahari Meerkat Research Project (i.e. Meerkat Manor), and am now doing research on dwarf mongooses in the lowveld of NE South Africa.
If you come across a mistake on this blog, please let me know. I really want to learn new things, and to get them right!
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