By Ana Lucia Ralda. February 15, 2022. Published in BloomTV Blog
I’m sitting under the flowering plum blossom in my garden. For months its branches were bare until, one unexpected spring morning, I woke up to find them coated in bunches of tiny white flowers. The delicate petals resembled snowflakes as they were swept away by the breeze, carpeting the garden floor in white polka dots. I felt elated. I wanted to share the sight with someone, the awe.
I’ve been coming to sit here every morning for the past week because I know that in one more week, the flowers will be gone and the branches will be bare again until the early fall when the plums grow. Even the thought of it makes me blue, yet how wonderful it feels to know that a tree can grow a source of joy.
For ninety nine-percent of our time on Earth, humans have been foragers. Long before we developed farming practices, much less cities with supermarkets, our brains evolved under the pressure of natural selection to make us good at searching for food. In fact, much of the enjoyment we get from flowers is courtesy of this evolutionary history.
In the early Cenozoic era, when Earth’s conditions became more suitable for mammals, the presence of flowers signaled a reliable predictor of food and water. Especially after a hungry winter, flowers marked the coming of abundance and their bright colors were signs of valuable nutrition. Thus, to encourage our adaptability and prosperity, our brains evolved to release hormones that made us feel good upon the sight of flowers.
For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, being knowledgeable about flowers and being able to distinguish among them represented an evolutionary advantage. Those whose brains were most stimulated by flowers, had a better chance at surviving, their tribes and cultures were more successful. Therefore, over time, humans who had a stronger positive emotional reaction to flowers were the ones who thrived.
Positive emotional reactions are caused by the release of hormones in our brain. The sight of flowers alone prompts the release of what we know as “the happy hormones’’: dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. Dopamine is triggered by the expectation of a reward. In the world where colorful flowers signaled the chance of nourishment, dopamine was a natural response that evoked excitement. Today we don’t consciously associate flowers with food, but the blossoming of a flower still generates the sense that something special is coming.
Oxytocin is known as the “bonding hormone” because it creates the feeling of trust. For humans, both ancient and modern, flowers stimulate trust and social cohesion by communicating the intention to invest and put effort into a relationship. As we know, trust is hard to find, even harder to maintain, and it is easily lost.
Flowers also establish social trust by conveying respect for vulnerability and the ability to share others’ happiness. We give someone flowers when they have suffered a loss, or accomplished something important. Additionally, the temporality of a flower is a reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of relationships. They are a reminder that care and trust are necessary to sustain and enjoy life.
Experiencing flowers also prompts the release of serotonin, a hormone known for its antidepressant properties. Serotonin is released when one gains some kind of social importance or recognition. As social animals, the position we hold in society has an immense effect on how we feel about ourselves. Many of our social rituals exist to satisfy this natural urge in a healthy way and flowers have always served to support these rituals. Whether you give them, receive them, or buy them for yourself, flowers naturally make us feel connected with ourselves and those around us.
Imagine inhabiting the world that our ancestors once did. You are somewhere trekking slowly, searching the landscape for food and water. In the distance you see a bright color pop brightly against the background. Immediately you feel a rushing excitement and an immense sense of hope. You hurry with low energy, yet determined. This distant color is life. As you get closer, it’s not only the abstract color that attracts you, there is an alluring smell, the unbelievable intricacy of form and texture. You get a feeling of pure connection, serenity and agitation at the thought of the possibilities. Imagine the satisfaction.