Flowers really do make you happy

i-a3cbbe30c445f0d189163ac7986f2e80-haviland2.jpgResearchBlogging.orgIf you saw a headline like this one in your local newspaper, you might first think it's some type of info-tisement sponsored by the floral industry. You'd probably be right, too. So what is this headline doing in Cognitive Daily? We've found a study to support the notion that flowers actually induce real positive emotions.

Was it paid for by the floral industry? Yes, it was. Does that mean it's bad research? Not necessarily. A team led by Jeannette Haviliand-Jones has conducted an impressive set of three experiments, each of which contributes to the idea that giving someone flowers improves their mood, not just at the moment of delivery, but long afterwards.

In the first experiment, 147 women were recruited using ads in supermarkets to participate in a study about "normal daily moods." In exchange, they would be given one of 10 possible gifts, but they weren't told which gift they'd receive. The women were all called on the phone and given a questionnaire to assess their mood and overall life satisfaction. Then, 10 days later, two experimenters showed up at their door at a scheduled time to deliver the gift.

One third of the women received flowers, one third got a fruit basket, and one third got a candle. These gifts had been pre-selected by a group of volunteers to have equivalent appeal, and they all had equivalent monetary value. Chocolate wasn't chosen as a gift because some raters found it unappealing because of the danger of gaining weight.

One experimenter delivered the gift, and another recorded the reaction of the women as they received it. The gifts were delivered in such a way that the recorder couldn't initially see what gift was delivered.

While the women smiled when receiving nearly all of the gifts, significantly more authentic Duchenne smiles were observed in women receiving flowers than the other gifts. While 100 percent of those receiving flowers smiled, only 90 percent of those receiving fruit and 77 percent of candle-receivers smiled authentically when seeing their gifts. Three days later, the women were interviewed on the telephone again, and only the flower-receivers scored significantly higher on the mood questionnaire than they had in the first interview.

In a second experiment, an experimenter stood in an elevator and gave whoever entered either a flower, a pen, or nothing. When nothing was given, half the time the experimenter was holding the basket of flowers, and half the time he was not. They also attempted to initiate conversation. Sixty men and sixty-two women entered, and a second experimenter recorded four different observations: whether the person smiled, how close they stood to the experimenter, whether they initiated conversation, and whether they were looking at the experimenter. These four observations were combined into a single score that ranged from 0 to 9. Here are the results:


Both men and women scored significantly higher in social behavior when they were given flowers compared to pens or no gift at all. Interestingly, the lowest scores were received when flowers were seen but not given -- so it's not enough just to see flowers, it's the act of being given flowers that appears to affect mood and social behavior.

In a final study, women in retirement homes and assisted living communities were given 0, 1, or 2 bouquets of flowers over a two-week period. They were interviewed at the beginning and end of the study to assess mood. Again, women who received flowers had significantly more positive moods at the end of the study than at the beginning. Women who received two bouquets were significantly less depressed than those receiving just one, who were again significantly less depressed than those receiving no bouquets (these women were given bouquets too -- after the final mood measure was taken).

So the floral industry seems to have made a good case for giving flowers -- in all three studies, flowers resulted in the most positive results compared to other gifts. Next the floral industry may want to sponsor work to determine if flowers make up for social gaffes like forgetting a birthday or anniversary!

Haviland-Jones, J., Rosario, H.H., Wilson, P., McGuire, T.R. (2005). An environmental approach to positive emotion: Flowers. Evolutionary Psychology, 3, 104-132.

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Useful, interesting research! ...and only a month late. ;)

I'm more interested in knowing if the happiness by receiving flowers is culturally (or floral industry) induced or evolutionary.

Well, unlike the alternate gifts, flowers are socially associated with romantic intentions. A pen, for example, has no similar association. There seems to be no effort to control for this social effect, either by comparing presentation of less romantically-associated flowers with more romantically-associated flowers, or by using a similarly socially-loaded item (jewelry?) as a control.

Therefore, there's no way to distinguish between intrinsic value of the item (i.e. by nature, flowers make people happy) and a tautology (i.e. gifts arbitrarily loaded with positive social value elicit more positive social responses).

By Spaulding (not verified) on 17 Apr 2008 #permalink

said the spider to the fly, come heither my love, for i but wish to dine.

"not necessarily" my **** when it comes to the results not being at all reliable as the research was paid for by the floral industry!

By ringlerun (not verified) on 17 Apr 2008 #permalink

This sounds quite useful. I'm always for making people happy.

Another study should be done contrasting real, silk and paper flower gifting.

By Laura Falley (not verified) on 17 Apr 2008 #permalink

"Hi, these are for you! Now watch them die."

I don't see the appeal...

I assume they gave them nice flowers.
Some old wilted thing wouldn't make me happier.

But overall I like flowers. You get them, they're pretty, they wilt you get rid of them.
No commitment.

Another study showed that the inability to appreciate the aesthetics of flowers was associated with clinical depression. But what interests me is why humans find floral displays adapted for interacting with bird, bee, and butterfly pollinators visually appealing. We certainly don't think flowers pollinated by flies, beetles, and bats are pretty. Probably something related to visual vs. olfactory displays.

My uneducated guess is that there's no real evolutionary reason for appreciating flowers. They certainly are aesthetically pleasing, but not for any particular reason. Also, there's a lot of implied meaning behind flowers. Giving someone a pen is just a gift, but flowers imply a real intention to show how you feel about the recipient. It could just be a simple "thank you" or complex "I want to be your friend, but I don't like you THAT way." :)

I'm betting that there are a number of things that would elicit similar responses, like pieces of art, and that in different cultures, you'd find slightly different results. Flowers are probably appreciated just about everywhere, but in the US, the effects of the floral industry's marketing would mean a difference from what you'd find elsewhere.

By Dread Polack (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Ironic to come across this. Just two days ago I recalled that I've received flowers only twice in the last 8 years and it made me sad. But the weather has been turning lately and I found myself stopping at least two or three times a day to look at the tulips and daffodils and take pictures of them with my phone camera. A way for me to capture these flowers for myself. It definitely makes me happy. I don't think I needed a study to tell me this, but nice to see some confirmation that I'm not the only one. I wonder if men react as strongly...I think I'll send this article to my boyfriend.

By depressed but … (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Question, if you have a chance: did the study specify whether the giver of the flowers was male or female? Because flowers have a traditional social meaning that is in my mind related to romance or validating femininity, I would think that the gender of the flower-giver would be worth controlling for. Attractiveness, too.

The results of this study are not surprising in the least. What is more surprising are some of the comments shared. Interestingly, no one has commented on the complexity of flowers. Compared to pens and candles, for example, flowers are a) natural, just like you, b) varied and variable, just like you, c) they possess different textures, shapes, (complex) scents, and coloration, just like you, and d) they are ephemeral (physically finite), just like you. Precisely because flowers possess these (as well as other) complex attributes akin to our own is what makes them conducive to happiness. We value happiness in part because (like all moods) it's fleeting; so the fact that flowers (too) do not last long ultimately enhances their value---yet this aspect of our appreciation is one we experience largely unconsciously.

By George Perry (not verified) on 21 Apr 2008 #permalink

Cabbages are natural, just like you; varied and variable, just like you; have different textures, shapes, scents, and coloration, just like you; and they don't last too long. Yet I'd guess that cabbages don't produce a sharp rise in happiness, no? I'm with the commenters above; I think the associations are key. However, flowers are associated with caring and romance for a reason -- they're very appealing -- which takes us full circle back to their natural, varied, scented qualities, etc.

Rest assured there are many who if given the choice between receiving a pen, candle, or cabbage, would choose the latter, and with a smile . . .

That flowers more often than not educe smiley faces is of course a human phenomenon that long predates the floral industry. Not unlike care and romance, springtime blooms are life-affirming/rejuvenating. Therein lies the natural "appeal" of flowers--the extent to which they directly/symbolically communicate/represent life. And while receiving a pen or candle as a gift can certainly have similar (or possibly more positive) appeal, the life-affirming organismic similarities we share with flowers plus the uplifting immediacy of their chemical/structural beauty probably in large part accounts for how it is blooms typically elicit human happiness. But like pens and candles, flowers aren't for everyone.

The vibrancy of flowers, their rich and varied colors, unique shapes and complex scents, the painterly way they light up a barren mountainside or desert plain in spring, for anyone openly alive to such sights, smells and tender touches happiness is a most natural result. As for blooms having produced winning smiles experimentally here, our positive associations with flowers--even those partially conditioned via culture or commercialism--*originally* derive from experiencing/appreciating/relating to nature in some way, shape or form. True, there is nature in a candle, primal/symbolic nature in a flame, but it is arguably of a kind more likely to induce contemplation or introspection as opposed to sheer joy or happiness. Comparatively, the petals of a flower typically extend from the center much like energy radiates from the human heart. Like ourselves, there is so much about flowers (even cabbage florets!) worth celebrating and rejoicing. As for pens, the damn things hardly ever work!

The inability to appreciate just about anything is associated with clinical depression. It's one of the main symptoms of depression.