My Surprising Secret To Becoming a Happier Person and Having Better Relationships

A couple of years ago, I bid farewell to my house share and moved into my own place. After an equally exciting and stressful phase of organising logistics, designing layouts and buying furniture, I got incredibly drawn to interior design. 

Having spent many days of my childhood playing in my grandparents’ garden, it’s become my natural instinct to look for greenery wherever I go. However, as a typical millennial in a crowded city, I was moving into a flat with no private outdoor space. 

Maybe it’s the colour green, the peace and freedom associated with parks and gardens, a soft spot for flora in my genes or just nostalgia.  Whatever it is, I knew I wanted to find a way to bring the outdoors inside. 

So, a few weeks later, my fate with houseplants started with me buying some mini succulents from my local supermarket. I went on to purchase the majority of my current plant collection over the next few months, and now it is impossible to walk around my flat without catching a glimpse of a leaf. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that my houseplants have changed my life, and here are six reasons why:

1. Houseplants provide significant benefits for my physical and mental health. 

Houseplants improve air quality by removing harmful household chemicals, according to NASA’s Clean Air Study; certain types, such as the sansevieria family, also release more oxygen during the night to help with sleep. Meanwhile, numerous studies find that they help improve mood and productivity. 

I was well aware of their air purifying properties before I even bought my first houseplants, but didn’t appreciate their mental health benefits until I started going through a rough patch of life. During this period, I was often stressed, exhausted and depressed. 

Nevertheless, no matter how unhappy I was, I still made it a habit to care for my plants and started to notice how much better I felt after such an ordinary routine. The colour of the leaves helped ease my eyes after hours of looking at a computer screen and calm my bodily functions. The act of watering, pruning, repotting, and checking up on my plants also kept me present in the moment, away from all of my stresses and worries. 

Eventually, I managed to get up from this low point, but the therapeutic sensation I received from my botanical treatment never faded. Now, spending a few minutes looking at plants is enough to make me feel better on a bad day and doing the same when I wake up in the morning energises me. I also bring plants into work to remind myself of the relaxing environment and calmness I have at home.

“The oldest of my sansevierias (left) and my spider plant (right) are both natural air purifiers, unique-looking and famously known as impossible to kill.”—Photo by Ha Bui

2. Caring for plants helps me balance my desire to nurture and my need for personal space.

Growing up as the oldest in a family with busy working parents, I feel responsible for taking care of people around me. At the same time, I value my independence, sometimes wishing I could spend time by myself to recharge, attend to my own needs and not mind anyone’s business. Houseplants are just the solution to my dilemma.

On the one hand, even the fussiest of plants have few basic requirements and are generally tolerable of some neglect, so I have the flexibility to fit plant care around my schedules and social commitments. This makes it a hobby that I always look forward to when I get home, rather than a chore that I dread.  

On the other hand, when I am without the presence of family and friends, I still manage to find company in my plants and a sense of fulfilment from caring for them. This has especially made such a difference to my emotional balance during extreme social down times such as the recent coronavirus lockdown. 

3. Plant care teaches me to forgive myself and move on from mistakes.

Despite common beliefs, even people with a green thumb do occasionally kill one of their beloved plants. 

One of the first houseplants I got was a peace lily with large white flowers and glossy dark green leaves. It was a plant I always wanted to have, partly because I associated it with childhood memories of my late grandfather who I looked up to and missed. 

We had an amazing year together and I grew especially attached to the plant, before it died abruptly. The loss was too much for me to handle at the time. I became miserable after beating myself up for what went wrong and wondering what if I had known better and could have saved it. 

For some time, I couldn’t get over the incident. However, I slowly realised that my grief was triggered by unresolved emotions of my helpless younger self when I faced the shock of my grandfather’s passing. With this new perspective, I finally managed to let go of the past, accept that I did the best I could and promise to give my love better to other plants I would have. 

Among other things, this experience now serves as a reminder to take it easy on myself and not stress over things outside of my control. As a result, I find it easier to heal and regain inner peace whenever I feel defeated by a mistake or an unpleasant setback.

4. My relationship with plants shows me what I need in my human relationships.

The first thing I learned about relationships from my plants is compatibility

When I first started collecting houseplants, my buying decisions were heavily influenced by physical appeal. Needless to say, over the course of my first year as an indoor gardener, especially after a cold winter, I would find some of my new plants in distress: my colourful kalanchoe and peperomia developed root rot, my fern dried to a crisp after I had an overwhelmingly busy week and my cactus stopped blooming. 

As much as thriving plants give me positive vibes, struggling plants give me misery. This is when I realised that, in order for both me and my plants to be happy, I need to stop getting plants just because they look trendy and pretty on someone’s Instagram feed and start choosing those that work with my space and lifestyle. Now, every time I think about getting a plant, no matter how lovely it looks in the shop, my first thought is about whether I am able to give it what it needs to grow healthily. 

Thanks to the habit of thoughtful research and selection, most plants that I do now have thrive with minimum effort. This reminds me of how safe and easy it feels when I am with people who share similar values and visions, one of the key factors in my best relationships.

Secondly, my houseplants taught me about the importance of communication and reciprocity. 

It may sound absurd that plants are able to communicate, but in fact they do. Rather than with sound, they communicate through their appearance. For example, droopy leaves, mushy stems and colour changes are all ways in which a plant voices that its need is not being met. 

When I pick up on these subtle cues and adjust my care routines, the plants often respond positively, sometimes even shooting out a new leaf or bulb, which in turn gives me joy. You may find it a relief to know that this is exactly what happened with the kalanchoe, peperomia and cactus mentioned earlier. After a transition period, they all recovered and have been repeatedly treating me with beautiful blooms. 

“My kalanchoe (top right) and cactus (bottom left) enjoy their spots on a bright window sill, next to my succulent (bottom right) and one of its babies in its original pot (centre).”—Photo by Ha Bui

5. A group of plants reminds me of and makes me appreciate my community more.

In the houseplant community, it is commonly advised that plants are placed in clusters to help them grow stronger. I can’t help but think that this also makes sense in the human world, because everyone needs a sense of purpose and belonging to lead a happy and meaningful life. 

Jim Rohn captured it perfectly in his quote:

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

For plants, lighting, soil and other plants play an integral part in their chance of survival: too much sunlight and the leaves get burned, soil that does not drain well suffocates the roots, and being next to a plant that is infested by pests is much worse than standing alone. Similarly, for humans, where we stay, what we do and people we surround ourselves with define who we are and directly affect our quality of life. 

These revelations make me extremely grateful for the support and affection I am fortunate enough to receive from my family, friends, mentors and colleagues who I interact with on a regular basis. Without them, it is certain that I can’t have become the person I am and achieved the things I have today.

6. My plants help me practice patience and have faith in the future.

The most rewarding thing about growing houseplants is to see them thrive, although this usually does not happen overnight. It took close to two years for my pothos and string of hearts, which started as baby plants, to grow attractive, long, and bushy trails that fill my shelves. It takes a year for my flowering plants to start a new blooming cycle. When I propagate cuttings, it takes several weeks, sometimes months, for them to root and become a new plant. These timings simply cannot be rushed.

In comparison, the fast-paced modern life often makes me dream about things coming together in an ideal timeline. When this expectation is not met in reality, it always adds to my anxiety and disappointment. 

Recently, I had an eye opener. If I looked at these toxic goals as I would do with my plants, I would feel less pressured and more comfortable with my own progress. In other words, I just need to trust that plans take time to come to fruition and my effort will eventually pay off, as in  the lyrics of an old song I used to listen to:

Que sera sera

Whatever will be will be

The future’s not ours to see

Que sera sera

“If there is a plant for every human emotion, a string of hearts must be for love, quite literally.”—Photo by Ha Bui

Nowadays, I see my houseplants much more than home decorations. What started as a simple way to brighten up a bland space has turned into a fascination, so much so that being a plant parent has become part of my identity. The plants have become non-human companions that I deeply care for and appreciate. More importantly, they have taught me lessons I will remember for years to come and made me a better and happier person.

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