Anxious? Stressed? Hug a tree, says Hugh

Planting, nurturing, pulling weeds and trimming edges is a very satisfying way to have things under control in our lives, Australia’s pre-eminent social researcher Hugh Mackay tells KATHRYN VUKOVLJAK

GARDENS represent more than just a place to grow our veggies, according to social researcher and author Hugh Mackay, who believes they can fulfil some of our very basic desires as human beings.

In fact, chatting to “CityNews” after a day’s writing (Hugh is working on his latest book), he confessed that he plans to “go out in the garden and attack the hydrangea, which is due for its great winter chop – just the thing after a day’s work!”

Hugh will talk about his theories on how gardens satisfy our desires in a special lecture at the National Museum of Australia on Wednesday, July 11.

He says it doesn’t matter if it’s our own garden, a friend’s garden, or a public park – or indeed, if we are actually gardening or just enjoying the space – but it’s definitely the case that we feel comfortable, or most ourselves, when surrounded by nature.

“Human behaviour is not rational, it’s complex, and we are all more powerfully driven by the heart than the head,” he says.

“One of our very basic needs is to have places that are special to us; physical places that define us.

“For some people, it’s a favourite pew in a church, or the family home, a corner of a cemetery or a sporting field.

“But for a vast number of people it’s gardens. It’s the place we most easily develop a sense of connection to the ground.”

This desire to actually connect to the natural world is another significant factor that brings us outdoors, he says.

“US psychologists have coined the phrase ‘nature deprivation syndrome’ in kids who don’t spend enough time outside,” he says. “It refers to the restlessness and concentration lapses we experience due to a lack of fresh air.

“Things like swimming, bushwalking, sailing, rock climbing, even owning pets, can put us in touch with the natural world. It’s a basic desire for people. That’s why you usually find that those who live in high-rise apartments, quite removed from nature, will usually have a little pot plant of some sort on the balcony!”

Gardens also fulfil the human desire to control something, says Hugh.

“Most of us get frustrated trying to control things… or people!” he says. “But planting, nurturing, pulling weeds and trimming edges is a very satisfying way to have things under control in our lives.”

Another factor is the desire to belong to a group, which is very common among gardeners, says Hugh.

“There is often that sense of sharing of information, or produce, which is a lovely point of connection. I think gardening is a very healthy activity for human beings.

“It’s a kind of modern, controllable symbolic version of the days when we had to grow our own food. And it’s hard to stay anxious in a garden.

“It’s a way of defining your own space, in a way that is easier than decorating a house – you can change the landscaping more easily than adding an extension!

“Gardening also satisfies the creative impulse and fulfils that sense of being in a tranquil place in a spiritual sense.

“We don’t always know why we feel anxious, restless or stressed, but it’s often because we haven’t been doing enough tree hugging!

“It’s really important for us to get out into the public parks, go to the arboretum, go for a walk around the lake.

“Sometimes we need to literally smell the roses.”

Hugh Mackay will talk about what gardens mean to us in a lecture at the National Museum of Australia 5.30pm, on Wednesday, July 11. It costs $20 (includes pre-talk drinks and presentation). Bookings essential at or call 6208 5084 during business hours.

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