How good design can help you cope
Minor changes to your house can help produce healthy psychological responses to daily stress
Psychological research shows that the external environment has a significant impact on human behaviour, and the way you organize your home can either hinder or help your dreams of self-improvement. While we wouldn’t suggest taking on a huge renovation project, there are small changes that might make your resolutions feel easier to achieve.
Here are four science-backed design fixes to help you change your behaviour. Plan: Sleep better Design Fix: Install curtains — and use them.
Toby Israel, an expert in design psychology and author of the book Some Place Like Home, says that light regulation is essential to getting a good night’s rest. Production of melatonin, the chemical that controls your circadian rhythm, is triggered by darkness; a room filled with glowing gadgets or light from the outdoors can negatively impact that process. Similarly, getting too little light during the day can disrupt your body’s normal melatonin cycle.
Israel recommends installing heavy-duty curtains in the bedroom to completely block out artificial light. But be sure to open them first thing in the morning — natural light will make you feel more awake and helps synchronize your sleep cycle.
Apart from helping you feel better rested, melatonin may also help you feel better, period. The chemical is believed to promote immunity and can act as an antiinflammatory. Plan: Improve your diet Design Fix: Invest in good food storage.
“You want to think about what kind of environment you can create where it’s going to be easy to make healthy choices and really hard to make unhealthy choices,” says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.
The presentation of food has a huge impact on what we choose to consume. Make sure that the foods you want to eat are visible and easily accessible: Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on your counter and store washed, ready-to-eat vegetables in clear containers in the fridge. On the other hand, junk food and desserts should be kept in opaque containers; this will make you less likely to reach for them when you’re hungry.
Schwartz also recommends portioning out food into meal-size containers when you put it away. This way, you’ll be less likely to eat more than you intended. Plan: Succeed at work Design Fix: Seek out views of nature.
Gazing out a window isn’t pointless daydreaming — it can actually help you at your job. Avik Basu, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, says that natural views can improve focus and reduce mental fatigue at work.
That’s because our brains are hardwired to be automatically drawn toward nature scenes, a phenomenon called “fascination.” These moments of involuntary absorption allow us to rest what Basu calls “directed attention” (the kind of concentration required for reading, writing, etc.) and prevent fatigue, allowing us to work longer.
If you work from home, consider moving your desk or home office close to a window to take advantage of outdoor views. For those who can’t control their access to windows, an “artificial view” can achieve a similar effect: Hang a photograph or painting of a natural scene by your desk. Easiest of all, try changing your computer background — even images on screens have been shown to share the “fascinating” effect of actual nature. Plan: Reduce stress Design Fix: Cultivate coziness.
Bright light and expansive views might help with alertness and work performance, but you’re more likely to relax in rooms that are darker and more intimate. There are a number of ways to promote relaxation in your living spaces. Dim lighting helps; try installing a dimming switch or switching out your lamp shades for ones in darker colours. Also avoid sharp and angular furniture. In a 2011 study published in the journal Environment and Behavior, participants reported feeling “relaxed, peaceful and calm” around curved furniture.
And remember that what constitutes a comforting home is particular to the individual. Following a design trend is like “wearing someone else’s clothes,” Israel says. “They’re beautiful, but they never seem to fit right.”
Instead, she advocates “designing from within.” This means embracing the qualities that make your home yours — prominently displaying your collection of knickknacks and filling the kitchen with smells of food. It’s your house — and your resolution.