Your House Is Not Just Shelter

Once we get beyond the survival requirement for shelter we can transition your thinking into how to optimize our living environments for the ideal life that we want to live. The space that we live in is an extremely important yet extremely under-discussed subject. If we want to feel happy then we need to exist in a space that contributes to our happiness. If we want to be productive then we need to exist in the space that contributes to our productivity. If we want to be relaxed then we need to exist in a space that contributes to our relaxation. 

Of course, the same goes for our working environments. Those of us that have to work in the office of our employer only have partial control over that environment. I say partial control because in most cases you do have control over the things on your desk and the walls in your immediate surroundings and some of you may have significantly more control. If you are in this situation, you have some reasonable basis for “putting up with” whatever your employer gives you. 

However, we all have complete control (or close to it) over the space that we live in. Of course, you do not have complete control if you are renting or sharing the house with other people who will want to have a say in how the living space is organized or designed and this becomes part of the big picture that needs to be managed.

Everything in your living space impacts you but it is also a reflection of you as you are right now. In the chapter about Humans, we discussed research that showed how a briefcase and the scent of cleaning liquid directly impacted the subconscious minds of the people in the experiment and altered their behavior. It shows how even very small and minor aspects of our immediate surroundings can have a significant impact on our performance and the way we feel.

A study conducted by Lindsey Graham (8.1) and professor Sam Gosling was established to research the content, organization, and design of people’s living space in order to determine what it said about them. Although understanding what it says about you is interesting, the reason for discussing this research here is not so much to understand what it says about you but to learn something about how to optimize everything in your living space to allow you to be as happy, peaceful, productive, relaxed (or any other state of mind) as possible. Graham mentioned that a common challenge for couples is deciding how to integrate their individual possessions and preferences into a shared space in a way that allows them both to feel at home. Sometimes this process goes smoothly and other times it does not. The researchers took 360° photos of everything in the space and also asked the homeowners to complete questionnaires that included questions about the type of impression they hoped this space portrayed to others and the emotions that they wanted to be expressed in the space.

Each of the items displayed in the space potentially portrays something about your identity or how you think, feel, or act in everyday life. An example of an item that reflects identity is a religious person displaying a religious icon or a sports fan displaying something that represents their sport or team. Other items may be displayed in order to make you feel a certain way. This may be a photo of you on a vacation where the photo serves as a reminder of how happy you felt at the time. The organization of the space also says something about you. People that like to entertain will organize the space in a way that maximizes its use for entertaining people whereas an introvert may organize the space in a way that is more delicate.

Your living space and nature

A critical MPI principal is getting as close to nature as possible. Rachel Kaplan is a psychologist at the University of Michigan. (8.2) She was surprised at how good she felt when she changed offices. She had occupied the previous office for 17 years. It looked out on a barren wall in a courtyard. A new office provided a treetop view. As she worked on her computer or talked on the phone she could gaze out at the trees and watch birds and squirrels leap from branch to branch. Her own research confirms the fact that her new environment makes the average person feel better and, in this case, it’s mostly attributable to access to nature. Kaplan and her husband conduct research that they call “restorative environments”. They are exploring nature’s impact on people’s mental functioning, social relationships, and physical well-being. Other people are putting the research into practice by working with architects, interior designers, and city planners to create psychologically healthy buildings and cities.

They started by studying people’s attention and distinguished between two types of attention that they call direct and attention and fascination. Kaplan proposes that too much direct attention led to what they call “directed attention fatigue” and the impulsivity, distractibility, and irritability that come with it. They propose that people can recover from the state by indulging in the inherent fascination of nature. Kaplan explains that people don’t have to actually venture into the woods. A view of nature from a window can be very helpful. In one study, Kaplan found that office workers with a view of nature had less anger, liked their jobs more, enjoy better health, and reported greater life satisfaction.

Terry A. Hartig, Ph.D. is a psychologist (an associate professor of applied psychology at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Gävle, Sweden) draws on the research by the Kaplan’s for his own research. In one of his experiments, he explored nature’s ability to help people recover from what he calls “normal psychological wear and tear”. In one of these studies, he asked participants to complete a 40-minute sequence of tasks that were deliberately designed to exhaust their direct attention capacity. After the fatiguing, tasks were completed and a randomly selected group of participants spent 40 minutes walking in a local nature preserve, another group walked in an urban area and another group sat quietly reading magazines and listening to music. After this rest, those who had walked in the nature preserve performed better than the other participants on a standard proofreading task. They also reported more positive emotions and less anger.

Hartig explained that “these are not spectacular natural environments or horribly oppressive urban environments. We try to represent typical local conditions, using what’s available to people in the way of places they can enter if they’re feeling stressed and want some relief.”

People can also benefit from photographic simulations. In one experiment Hartig found that when showing one group of people photographs of a forested area and showing another group of people photographs of downtown Stockholm the photographs of the forested area boosted people’s mood.

Frances E. Kuo, Ph.D., (co-director of the HumanEnvironment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ) is completing research that aims to determine whether nature can help mitigate the negative impact of living in bleak, urban environments. She conducts most of her research on public housing projects in Chicago. Kuo says “the green landscapes in these studies are not what most people would call green. We’re talking about isolated pockets of green containing just the bare bones of grass and a tree.” However, that limited amount of nature had a significant impact on children living in the area. Kuo put children through a series of tests and then compared the performance of the children living in the buildings near green space and those living in buildings surrounded by concrete. The children living in greener environments had a greater capacity for paying attention and were better able to delay gratification and inhibit impulses. Kuo’s research also revealed that parents reported fewer symptoms relating to attention deficit hyperactivity when the children spend more time in the green spaces compared to the barren spaces. 

Healing the body

Roger S. Ulrich, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University is completed research that indicates that nature’s effect is not only on the mind. His research indicates that nature can also help to heal the body. In one of his most well-known studies, Ulrich researched the effect that the views from windows had on patients that were recovering from abdominal surgery. The research indicated that patients whose hospital rooms overlook trees had an easier time recovering than those whose rooms overlook the brick walls. The patients who could see nature from their window were discharged from hospital more quickly, had fewer complications, and required less pain medication than those that could only see the wall through the window.

Ulrich also replicated the results from other researchers that indicated that simply viewing representations of nature can help. In one study he found that heart surgery patients in intensive care units could reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by looking at pictures depicting trees and water.

Ulrich has developed a theory of supportive design, a series of guidelines for designers of healthcare facilities. The objective is to soothe patients, families, and employees by incorporating features like the views of nature and nature related art in patient rooms and in waiting areas.

It’s important to note that we are obviously not just affected by what we see. Gary W. Evans, Ph.D., a professor of human-environment relations at Cornell University, studies the effect of noise pollution. Evans has found that noisy environments have effects that go beyond hearing damage. In one study he found that first and second graders that attended school with airplanes flying overhead scored 20% lower on word recognition tests. He suggests that even small amounts of noise can be harmful. In one study he found that clerical workers exposed to conversation and other mild office noise showed higher stress levels and gave up on performance tests faster than those with quiet offices.

Design psychology

As a result of this research, there has been a justifiable rise in design psychology. Design psychology incorporates more than just aesthetics. It incorporates an analysis of how your surroundings will impact your emotions and thoughts and attempts to connect you to the types of places, spaces, and items that the folk the most pleasant thoughts.

John Ziesel, a San Diego-based neuroscientist at the Salk Institute is researching what he calls “measurement-based design” which examines how spaces can shape our behavior. His research (8.1) utilizes hormone studies, brain scans, and targeted psychological experiments. He says “the kitchen is loaded with emotional and behavioral cures. Science can help us understand what goes on behind the shiny surfaces and layout of kitchen cabinetry”. He says that “academics and politicians alike increasingly emphasize the value of the happiness quotient. Our surroundings inevitably impact and well-being, and the kitchen, where most of us spend most of our time, should induce those primitive feelings of sociability and comfort.”

I cannot stress enough how important this is if you are trying to get the most out of yourself while feeling as good as possible.

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