Comparison of the Effects of Plant Parables on the Promotion of Spiritual Benefits in Students with Differing Horticultural Backgrounds

in HortTechnology

Research on the restorative benefits of nature primarily has focused on the spiritual benefits of wilderness areas, but other areas, such as cities, have not been studied. Horticultural activities have the potential to promote spiritual health, but most participants are not aware of this benefit. To improve this situation and to increase evidence of the benefits of therapeutic horticulture, this study suggests treating plant parables as trigger cues, which would allow an approach to interaction with plants through metaphysical imagination, resulting in an improvement in spiritual health from horticultural activities. The purpose of this study was to understand participants' beliefs of the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, and to see if these beliefs were enhanced after reading plant parables. This study surveyed subjects with different horticultural backgrounds, and measured their opinions regarding belief in the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, before and after reading the parables. The results indicated that before reading the plant parables, neither group of subjects with different horticultural backgrounds agreed with the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities; however, after reading the plant parables, the belief of participants with formal horticultural education backgrounds increased significantly (P ≤ 0.001). The increase was not significant in subjects without formal horticultural education backgrounds.

Abstract

Research on the restorative benefits of nature primarily has focused on the spiritual benefits of wilderness areas, but other areas, such as cities, have not been studied. Horticultural activities have the potential to promote spiritual health, but most participants are not aware of this benefit. To improve this situation and to increase evidence of the benefits of therapeutic horticulture, this study suggests treating plant parables as trigger cues, which would allow an approach to interaction with plants through metaphysical imagination, resulting in an improvement in spiritual health from horticultural activities. The purpose of this study was to understand participants' beliefs of the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, and to see if these beliefs were enhanced after reading plant parables. This study surveyed subjects with different horticultural backgrounds, and measured their opinions regarding belief in the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, before and after reading the parables. The results indicated that before reading the plant parables, neither group of subjects with different horticultural backgrounds agreed with the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities; however, after reading the plant parables, the belief of participants with formal horticultural education backgrounds increased significantly (P ≤ 0.001). The increase was not significant in subjects without formal horticultural education backgrounds.

Spiritual health is a new field of health promotion that has gradually become more important in recent years (Vader, 2006). Classical definitions of spirituality tend to concentrate on religious and ecclesiastical matters or matters concerned with the soul, but current studies adopt much wider definitions (Fisher et al., 2000). Spirituality is defined as having a meaning and a direction in life. Spirituality involves the development of positive morals, ethics, and values. Being healthy spiritually helps us to demonstrate love, hope, and a sense of caring for oneself and others (School District 6, 2009). Spiritual health is related to other aspects of health (physical, mental, and social) and is seen as a basic resource of other health aspects. Spiritual health leads to vitality and improved behavior and motivation (Hsiao and Huang, 2005). It also allows individuals to live more meaningful lives. Spiritual well-being is regarded as an essential need of human beings; however, there have been practical difficulties in identifying, defining, and measuring this dimension (Vader, 2006). Due to this difficulty in outlining spirituality, spiritual health studies in different fields are in their early stages.

Research on the restorative effects of nature (Bell et al., 2001) has focused on physical and psychological benefits instead of spiritual benefits. The physical and psychological benefits derived from natural environments can be applied to urban areas, but these are often transient (Hietanen and Korpela, 2004). Previous research has shown that to obtain long-term spiritual benefits, people must spend a greater amount of time in natural environments that have the potential to lead to deep restorative experiences that can provide the opportunity to reflect on life's larger questions such as one's priorities, goals, and one's place in the overall scheme of things, and the sense of “being at one with the universe” (Herzog et al., 1997; Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). However, these studies have focused only on wilderness areas (Fredrickson and Anderson, 1999; Heintzman, 2002; Kaplan and Talbot, 1983; Williams and Harvey, 2001) or were conducted in locations with significant spiritual meaning, such as monasteries (Ouellette et al., 2005). There are few studies on how nature in urban areas leads to spiritual benefits.

Explanations of the restorative effects of nature are related to visual preferences (Kaplan et al., 1998; Ulrich, 1983) and follow the classical idea of disinterested contemplation of sensuous and formal properties (e.g., lines, form, color, or textures) of isolated and solitary pieces of art (Carlson and Berleant, 2004). Most of the research based on disinterested contemplation indicates that these restorative effects are temporary because the appreciation is usually trivial and superficial. On the other hand, “there is in the appreciation of nature, a movement from shallow and trivial to deep, serious aesthetic experience” (Carlson and Berleant, 2004). Serious aesthetic experience is an engaged experience that comes from the participant's point of view and occurs within an environment (Berleant, 1997; Carlson, 2002). It is an open, engaging, and creative mode of appreciation, guided by realizations on the character of the natural world (Carlson and Berleant, 2004; Hepburn, 1966).

The many-leveled structure of an aesthetic experience of nature can include a great diversity of constituents, from the most particular—rocks, stones, leaves, clouds, shadows—to the most abstract and general ways that we comprehend the world as a whole. The landscape can be viewed as ominous, cosmically ominous, or as revealing and concealing great beauty (Hepburn, 2004). During high-leveled aesthetic experiences, people often have philosophical feelings and an understanding of life, history, and the universe (Li, 2001; Ye, 1993). There are many similarities between an aesthetic and restorative experience (Yu et al., 2006). Thus, spiritual benefit can be considered a result of a highly aesthetic experience. To promote the spiritual benefits of nature, the aesthetic experience must be enhanced.

Metaphysical imagination is the contemplation of perceptible analogies between life and the scene before us and provides a superior aesthetic experience because it transforms scientific knowledge of scenes to metaphysical principles of life (Hepburn, 2004). It is a component of the experience of the present landscape; it is fused with sensory components, but is not a meditation aroused by the surroundings (Hepburn, 2004). Metaphysical imagination can avoid shallow or trivial appreciation that results from personal and emotional responses (Carlson, 2009). Thus, it produces convincing results that are persistent and are different from temporary fantasy (Hepburn, 2004). With metaphysical imagination, people can interpret nature as an inspirational, generalized, and metaphysical truth and can achieve a vision of the meaning of life, the human condition, and the human position in the universe. This concept is similar to the beliefs of the ancient Chinese; the principles of humans and the universe are based upon the same system, and by observing the ways of nature, people can recognize these principles of their own lives (Chuang Tzu, n.d.). Thus, a highly aesthetic experience could result in spiritual benefits.

Horticultural activities are interactive compared with static scenery appreciation; thus, they have more potential to result in highly aesthetic experiences (Yu et al., 2006). However, if the participants treat horticultural knowledge simply as scientific knowledge, they cannot achieve highly aesthetic experiences. The participants must be capable of metaphysical imagination to transform the scientific knowledge of horticultural activities into the metaphysical principles of life and acquire spiritual benefits (Yu et al., 2006). To determine practical approaches for triggering metaphysical imagination, this study reviews the content of classical Chinese literature and the Christian Bible and treats plant parables as trigger cues for metaphysical imagination.

The ancient Chinese often compared the characteristics of plants to personality traits (Cheng, 1992; Jin, 2005). For instance, in the Lotus Flower, the lotus springs out of muddy water without a trace of dirt, implying that when a person encounters a difficult environment, he/she will not be affected and his/her dignity remains pure. In the New Testament of the Bible, Jesus compares the results of spreading seeds onto different types of land to people's attitudes in accepting the Gospel from the Kingdom of Heaven, (Chapter 13, Matthew). People can better understand their lives by comparing them to famous plant parables.

Therefore, horticultural activities may have the potential to promote spiritual health. Because therapeutic horticulture currently refers only to physical, psychological, and social benefits (Relf, 1998), the purpose of this study was to understand participants' beliefs about the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities and to discover if these beliefs were enhanced after reading plant parables.

Material and methods

Subjects

The subjects in this study were university students from the National Taiwan University. They were divided into two groups according to their horticultural background. Group 1 consisted of students from diverse departments other than the Department of Horticulture. The students were surveyed in a general education course (the title of the course was “From Money to Chinese History”) on 12 May 2009. Subjects were asked if they grew plants in their daily lives. They were given the choice of “no,” “sometimes,” “usually,” or “continually.” Those participants who answered “no” (67 participants) were not analyzed. The remaining subjects were considered as having experience with plants in their daily lives. They were asked to complete all sections of the questionnaire, and their survey results were analyzed. Among the 103 questionnaires distributed, seven were eliminated because of incomplete answers and only 29 students had experience with plants in their daily lives. Most of the 29 qualified subjects were natural science majors (72%). These individuals were considered subjects who possessed personal plants and had nonformal horticultural education backgrounds.

Students in Group 2 were from the Department of Horticulture. They were surveyed as part of a required course in the Department of Horticulture. Among the 40 questionnaires distributed, one was eliminated because of incomplete answers. Ten were not analyzed because those students who respond to the survey did not grow plants in their daily lives. In total, 29 students were determined to have experience with plants in their daily lives. Compared with Group 1, these students had taken advanced courses in horticulture and gained training in cultivation. Therefore, the subjects of Group 2 were considered to have formal backgrounds in horticulture.

Questionnaire

This study collected data from self-reported questionnaires. The questionnaires included four sections: demographic questions, a pre-test of opinions on the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, plant parables, and a post-test of opinions on the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities.

Demographic survey questions.

Demographic questions referred to gender, major, horticultural interests, and horticultural experience in the students' daily lives.

Spiritual health survey questions.

Pre-test and post-test questions on the perceived spiritual benefits of horticultural activities represented the participants' thoughts about spiritual benefits from horticultural activities. In the pre-test, the instructions asked subjects to recall their experiences growing plants. Respondents described the experiences by indicating their level of agreement using a Likert-scale rating system (1–5 points, with 1 = “strongly disagree” and 5 = “strongly agree”). After reading plant parables, the instructions of the post-test asked subjects to reconsider if they had gained these benefits from growing plants.

Each statement was chosen from the spiritual health scale constructed by Hsiao and Huang (2005). The scale was used because it is related to Taiwanese culture and would, therefore, appropriately correlate with the basic cultural values of the test groups of students. Most of the foreign spiritual health scales are based on Christianity and are, therefore, not suitable for the diverse and sometimes polytheistic religions in Taiwan (Hsiao et al., 2007). The spiritual health scale includes five dimensions: meaning derived from living, self-understanding, transcendence, connection to others, and religious attachment. It offers satisfactory validity and can be applied to assess the spiritual health status of individuals (Hsiao and Huang, 2005).

Because the scale aims to assess the subjects' spiritual health in general, it is different from this study, which intended to survey the thoughts that an individual has about the spiritual benefits derived from horticultural activities. Thus, the syntax of the statements for this study was modified. For instance, the item from the original scale that read “I will deliberate on the issues related to the meaning of life” was modified to read “horticultural activities help me in deliberating the issues related to the meaning of life.” Some items in the original scale did not match the introductory statement of “horticultural activities benefit me”; thus, from the 47 items in the original scale, this study selected 19 items for modification. The items are shown in Table 1. The split-half reliabilities were corrected by the Spearman-Brown formula for the pre- and post-test, and the values were 0.888 and 0.941, respectively.

Table 1.

The dimensions of the spiritual health scale (Hsiao and Huang, 2005) and items related to each dimension, modified to include the pre- and post-test of the perceived spiritual benefits of horticultural activities. Respondents described the experiences by indicating their level of agreement using a five-point Likert-scale rating system, with 1 = “strongly disagree” and 5 = “strongly agree.”

Table 1.

Plant parables.

Regarding the section of the plant parables, this study selected four parables that were taken from internet articles and maxims related to raising plants or plant growth (Table 2). They were selected because they all had some metaphors that connected to human life. For this study, the researcher invited subjects to read these parables carefully in private. The subjects were then given two tasks to ensure that they were reading carefully. One task asked about their favorite parable, and the other asked them to rate each parable on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “superficial” and 5 being “profound.”

Table 2.

The source and the content of plant parables that represent the transformation of scientific knowledge into metaphysical principles of life. They served as trigger cues to promote metaphysical imagination, which the subjects were asked to read after finishing the pre-test of the perceived spiritual benefits of horticultural activities.

Table 2.

Procedure

It took approximately 10 min for the subjects to complete the questionnaire. After the pre-test, the subjects read the plant parables individually, and then they completed the post-test. The results were based on the scores of the pre- and post-test to determine if the subjects' agreement with the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities differed before and after reading the plant parables.

Results

There was no significant difference in the pre-test results from the two groups, as determined by the independent-sample t test (t = −0.63, P = 0.531). The total pre-test score of Group 1 was 50.76 and that of Group 2 was 53.34, with both being less than 57 (the medium level of agreement of 3 points for each of the 19 items). This indicates that whether the subjects had a horticultural background or not, the subjects did not agree that horticultural activities can enhance personal spiritual benefits before reading the plant parables. After reading the plant parables, only the total scores of Group 2 were greater than 57 in the post-test.

A paired-sample t test was conducted to analyze the total scores of the pre- and post-test in Groups 1 and 2. The results are shown in Table 3. The difference in comparisons of the total scores in the pre- and post-test in Group 1 is not significant. The total scores of the post-test are significantly higher than those of the pre-test in Group 2 (t = −4.830, P ≤ 0.001). In regard to the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities, reading plant parables can significantly enhance the agreement of subjects that have formal backgrounds in horticulture, as can the promotion of horticultural activities on spiritual benefits. However, the plant parables did not significantly enhance a person's agreement with the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities if they possessed a nonformal educational background in horticulture.

Table 3.

Summary of the t tests applied to examine the differences in the spiritual benefits from horticultural activities between the pre-test and post-test questionnaire results, based on 58 valid questionnaires of university students with non-formal (Group 1) or formal (Group 2) backgrounds in horticulture.

Table 3.

This study then analyzed the difference of the means in the pre- and post-tests in the five dimensions mentioned above (Table 4). The results demonstrate that the pre- and post-test means of Group 1 did not have significant differences; among the five dimensions of Group 2, only the scores of religious attachment failed to show significant differences between the pre- and post-test. In the remaining four dimensions, the means from the post-test were higher than those from the pre-test. In other words, reading the plant parables can enhance the spiritual benefits of subjects with a horticultural background in the dimensions of “meaning derived from living,” “self-understanding,” “transcendence,” and “connection to others”; however, it cannot further enhance religious attachment.

Table 4.

Summary of the t tests applied to examine the differences in the five spiritual health dimensions from horticultural activities between the pre-test and post-test questionnaire responses, based on 58 valid questionnaires of university students with non-formal (Group 1) or formal (Group 2) backgrounds in horticulture.

Table 4.

Discussion

This study found that regardless of the horticultural backgrounds of individuals, the subjects did not agree that horticultural activities can promote personal spiritual health when there were no trigger cues. This result demonstrates that people do not recognize the spiritual benefits of horticultural activities because most research regarding the benefits of plants do not mention a spiritual component (Bell et al., 2001; Relf, 1998). However, after reading plant parables, the agreement of those with a formal education in horticulture was significantly enhanced. This demonstrates that the plant parable can be used as a simple aesthetic education tool that can encourage readers to metaphysically transform horticultural knowledge. Thus, the effects of therapeutic horticulture can impact psychological and spiritual health.

However, the effect of plant parables is only significant for those with formal backgrounds in horticulture. This finding supports Carlson's idea that having more knowledge facilitates the understanding of the meaning that comes from aesthetic experiences (Carlson, 2002), which may be due to the amount of horticultural knowledge and the level of training in cultivation. Students with formal backgrounds in horticulture have more related knowledge and cultivation training; thus, they can accumulate more knowledge and have more opportunities to effectively transform this knowledge into metaphysical truth compared with those whom have little or no related education background. According to the findings of this study, for those with rich horticultural knowledge and cultivation training, written presentation is sufficient to instruct the individual on how to promote spiritual benefits through horticultural activities. For those without much horticultural knowledge and cultivation training, the written presentation is not sufficient. It is possible that these subjects need more knowledge about horticultural operations to better understand the plant parables to promote spiritual benefits by horticultural activities. Future studies can examine the enhancing effect of plant parables by using a series of horticultural courses for those with no horticultural background. Also, the students who stated that they had no experience with plants could be studied to compare those with some experience and those with formal educational background.

Among the five dimensions of spiritual health, “meaning derived from living,” “self-understanding,” and “transcendence” are the most statistically significant factors. “Meaning derived from living” means that one can understand the purpose, meaning, and value of oneself. “Self-understanding” means that one has self-acceptance and self-appreciation. “Transcendence” is the belief that one can face the situation, accept the situation, change one's mind, and search for help when confronting frustrations. From the results of this research, it seems that these dimensions have much connection with growing plants. These dimensions also correspond to the deep restorative effects of wilderness areas (Fredrickson and Anderson, 1999; Kaplan and Talbot, 1983; Williams and Harvey, 2001). Religious attachment was not enhanced by the plant parables presented in this research. The effect of religious attachment is not easily seen with horticultural activities, which could be due to the limitations of the types of parables, an insignificant understanding of religion in Taiwanese culture, or that readers felt that religion could be seen as having little connection with growing plants. Future studies can focus on the dimensions that have more connection with growing plants or probe the possible effects of different types of parables.

Literature cited

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Contributor Notes

Corresponding author. E-mail: yschang@ntu.edu.tw

  • BellP.A.GreeneT.C.FisherJ.D.BaumA.2001Environmental psychology5th edThomsonBelmont, CA

    • Export Citation
  • BerleantA.1997Living in the landscape: Toward an aesthetics of environmentUniversity Press of KansasLawrence, KS

    • Export Citation
  • CarlsonA.2002Aesthetics and the environment: The appreciation of nature, art and architectureRoutledgeNew York

    • Export Citation
  • CarlsonA.2009Nature and landscape: An introduction to environmental aestheticsColumbia University PressNew York

    • Export Citation
  • CarlsonA.BerleantA.2004Introduction: The aesthetics of nature1142CarlsonA.BerleantA.The aesthetics of natural environmentsBroadview PressToronto, ON, Canada

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ChengF.-W.1992Shenyu wuyou: The approach of traditional Chinese aestheticsShangding PressTaipei, Taiwan(In Chinese).

    • Export Citation
  • Chuang Tzun.d. Based on James Legge's translation. 22: Knowledge rambling in the north27 Oct. 2009<http://oaks.nvg.org/zhuangzi22-.html>.

    • Export Citation
  • FisherJ.W.FrancisL.J.JohnsonP.2000Assessing spiritual health via four domains of spiritual wellbeing: The SH4DIPastoral Psychol.49133145

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FredricksonL.M.AndersonD.H.1999A qualitative exploration of the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspirationJ. Environ. Psychol.192139

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HeintzmanP.2002A conceptual model of leisure and spiritual well-beingJ. Park Recreation Administration20147169

  • HepburnR.W.1966Contemporary aesthetics and the neglect of natural beauty285310WilliamsB.MontefioreA.British analytical philosophyRoutledge and Kegan PaulLondon

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HepburnR.W.2004Landscape and the metaphysical imagination127140CarlsonA.BerleantA.The aesthetics of natural environmentsBroadview PressToronto, ON, Canada

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HerzogT.R.BlackA.M.FountaineK.A.KnottsD.J.1997Reflection and attentional recovery as distinctive benefits of restorative environmentsJ. Environ. Psychol.172165170

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HietanenJ.K.KorpelaK.M.2004Do both negative and positive environmental scenes elicit rapid affective processing?Environ. Behav.36558577

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HouQ.2007Trees will be flourishing after deep growing roots28 Oct. 2009<http://blog.xuite.net/arvin66/icsc/11912884>. (In Chinese).

    • Export Citation
  • HsiaoY.-C.HuangS.-Y.2005Constructing and evaluating the reliability and validity of a scale to assess spiritual health: A nursing student sampleJ. Evidence-Based Nursing1218227(In Chinese).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HsiaoY.-C.HuangS.-Y.ChenM.-Y.2007A study of the relationships between religion, spiritual health and health promoting behaviorJ. Evidence-Based Nursing3271279(In Chinese).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • JinX.-Z.2005China park thesisChina Architecture and Building PressPeking, China(In Chinese).

  • JungJ.1990Heaven's words my wordsVol. 1Chinese Christian Youth AssnTaipei, Taiwan(In Chinese).

  • KaplanR.KaplanS.1989The experience of nature: A psychological perspectiveCambridge University PressNew York

    • Export Citation
  • KaplanR.KaplanS.RyanR.L.1998With people in mindIsland PressWashington, DC

    • Export Citation
  • KaplanS.TalbotJ.F.1983Psychological benefits of a wilderness experience163203AltmanI.WohlwillJ.F.Human behavior and environment: Advances in theory and researchVol. 6PlenumNew York

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • LiT.-H.2001Four lectures about aestheticsSanmin PressTaipei, Taiwan(In Chinese).

    • Export Citation
  • OuelletteR.KaplanR.KaplanS.2005The monastery as a restorative environmentJ. Environ. Psychol.25175188

  • RelfP.D.1998People-plant relationship2142SimsonS.StrausM.C.Horticulture as therapy: Principles and practiceHaworth PressNew York

  • School District 62009Spiritual health7 Dec. 2009<http://www.district6.nbed.nb.ca/districthealth/definitions/spiritual.aspx>.

    • Export Citation
  • UlrichR.S.1983Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment85125AltmanI.WohlwillJ.F.Human behavior and environment: Advances in theory and researchVol. 6PlenumNew York

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • VaderJ.2006Spiritual health: The next frontierEur. J. Public Health16457

  • WilliamsK.HarveyD.2001Transcendent experience in forest environmentsJ. Environ. Psychol.21249260

  • YeL.1993Modern aesthetics systemBookman PressTaipei, Taiwan(In Chinese).

    • Export Citation
  • YuW.-W.TsengC.-H.LingD.-L.ChangY.-S.2006Aesthetic level and restoration: The restoration theory constructed by Chinese aestheticsJ. Building Planning133343(In Chinese).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ZiA.2005Words of a florist7 Dec. 2009<http://blog.yam.com/betsy/article/845237>. (In Chinese).

    • Export Citation
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