There are many formulas for how to be happy, and the latest versions make pretty good sense. Exercise, healthy eating, ample sleep and doing things that help others are favorites on various how to be happy lists, which brings us to the humble vegetable garden. Dismissed by some as a dirty waste of time, vegetable gardening is emerging as a treasure trove of happiness.
Let's begin with a seldom-discussed fact: growing your own organic produce reduces food anxiety. You can feel total comfort with every bite, because you know exactly where and how that cabbage or cucumber was grown. This profound eating pleasure is unknown to the uninitiated. Questions about systemic pesticides or altered genes are off the table when what's on the table comes from your organic garden.
Gardening For Health and Happiness
In today's world this is important for everyone, but especially children. Concerned about exposure to pesticides and antibiotics, The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children eat organic food. Researchers from the University of California Medical School came to the same conclusion after finding that kids eating mainstream foods were exceeding cancer benchmark levels for several known carcinogens.
As for how to get kids to eat more fresh organic produce, the easiest way is to get them gardening, too. In addition to making children part of the action, the process of gardening slowly introduces kids to new foods, which increases their interest in trying them. I should also mention that adults who grow veggies eat more of them than do non-gardeners, thus setting a good example.
But back to how to be happy, veggie gardening style. The wellness benefits of gardening include an improved diet, but not until after you've done the work, which consists of months of physical tasks. Pursued with passion, a veggie garden can replace several months of gym workouts or exercise classes. First there's the heavy lifting of preparing beds in spring, followed by many days of stretching and bending to stay ahead of weeds. Garden work requires solid core strength and the use of different muscle groups. This very evening, digging and cleaning parsnips and radishes will be my warm-up to raking up several piles of grass clippings I'll use as mulch on my soon-to-be-planted garlic. Other fitness activities may be fun, but none pay dividends you can eat.
Gardening to Heal Life's Hurts
The American Horticultural Therapy Association keeps abreast of the many ways gardening can improve both physical and mental health. When treated to time in a garden, people struggling with pain of every variety – from surgery recovery to chronic mental illness – simply feel better. As the saying goes, gardening is cheaper than therapy and you get tomatoes.
Additionally, because gardening gets you outside among trees, bushes, birds and bees, I think it may offer many of the same benefits as Japanese "forest bathing" – time spent relaxing in beautiful woods. Ten minutes spent sitting quietly watching hummingbirds sip nectar from a basket of petunias is surely good for the heart. Another old saying: You can bury a lot of troubles by digging in the dirt.
It gets better. A 2009 study showed that gardening is one of several forms of exercise that can improve the sex lives of older men. Or maybe life itself is improved. A survey that compared attitudes of 400 Texas Master Gardeners to 400 non-gardeners found the gardeners to be happier, reporting more energy, optimism, and a greater zest for life. Who doesn't want that?
Save Money By Gardening
Money can't buy happiness, unless you don't have enough of it. If I had to buy all the organic produce my garden provides I would definitely feel the pinch. As it is, recent surveys place the value of produce harvested from an 800 square foot veggie garden at about $700 (£430/€545). However, you can double the numbers for well-grown organic produce, which often costs twice as much. Now we're talking how to be happy money, and of course you are eating the best food in the world.
Sharing is part of the gardening lifestyle, and the giving and receiving of extra produce gets the needle bouncing on the how to be happy scale every time. My friend Becky gave me two bulging bags of grapes, and I gave her homemade apple jelly, while another friend gave me huge spaghetti squash in exchange for my extra pears. After a while you stop trying to follow generosity trails like these, because nature is behind them all and they just keep going. Being part of this makes you very happy indeed.
By Barbara Pleasant
Last photo courtesy of igrowsonoma.org