This article was written by horticultural therapist and former occupational therapist Ed Bowring, also known as The Chichester Gardener.
In occupational therapy, our occupation doesn’t only mean our job title or what we might do to earn a living. It also includes all the activities we do and the roles we perform in our lives, whether alone or with others, through necessity or by choice. When combined, it is these occupations that give us our identity and give our lives meaning and purpose.
Occupational therapy is based upon a theory that we all need a balance of occupations in order to function well and not feel overwhelmed. A balance of self-care (including rest), productivity and leisure are paramount for our wellbeing.
Within this balance, occupational therapy recognises that we all need a combination of occupations that give us meaning and purpose, challenge us and provide opportunities for flow and relaxation.
Like any other activity, gardening can be considered an occupation. It doesn’t just mean a working role for a professional gardener but it is also an occupation for all of us who like to garden in one form or another. Whether we garden for pleasure on our own or with others socially, to grow food to eat and share, or flowers to appreciate at home, gardening is an activity that gives meaning and purpose to our lives and subsequently can help contribute to our mental and physical health and wellbeing.
The term ‘flow’ can be defined as “A positive feeling that occurs when there is a balance between perceived challenges and that person’s skills. It may include enjoyment, intense or complete involvement, deep concentration or the loss of time” (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentimihalyi, 1988).*
We experience flow when we do something and become lost in the activity, to the point where we forget about everything else - including our worries, aches and pains - and the time just flies by.
Flow is something that can be experienced doing any activity and is sometimes more commonly known as ‘being in the zone’. It is the balance of doing something that is not too challenging, yet not too easy, that gives us feedback and that we find rewarding.
Flow has been shown to be beneficial for a number of reasons. When we experience flow, we are more likely to enjoy the task we are doing, we feel more motivated and find the task rewarding.
When we experience regular states of flow, it may even lead to increased levels of satisfaction and happiness.
Here are some tips on how to achieve a state of flow in an activity:
Gardening can provide many opportunities for meaningful activity that we can become immersed in. Whether it is sowing seeds or nurturing seedlings, learning to propagate or creatively designing a new border, these are all tasks that can potentially provide us with a sense of flow.
Gardening encompasses so many different activities and the tasks can be relatively simple or more complicated, relaxing or strenuous. We may feel a sense of flow when raking up the fallen leaves on the lawn or when planting up a border. There is no specific recipe to finding flow as each of us is different.
The next time you find yourself in the garden, try being mindful of how you feel. Think about the gardening tasks you enjoy and how you feel when you are doing them. What are the tasks you find yourself immersed in and which help you forget about everything else? It is most likely during these activities that you will find yourself experiencing a positive sense of flow.
* Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (Eds.). (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge University Press