[Level 2: Comfort]


Once we get beyond the survival requirement for shelter, we can transition our 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 a 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 who 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 what is 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 control over the space where we live. Of course, if you are renting or sharing the house with other people, they will have opinions on how the living space is organized or designed. So you may not have complete control, and this becomes part of the big picture that needs to be managed.

Everything in your living space affects you, but it is also a reflection of you as you are right now. In the chapter “Humans,” you read how a briefcase and the scent of cleaning liquid directly influenced the subconscious minds of the people in the experiment and altered their behavior.

It shows how even very 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 and professor Sam Gosling was established to research the content, organization, and design of people’s living spaces, 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 this but to learn how to optimize your living space to allow you to be as happy, peaceful, productive, and relaxed (or any other desired state of mind) as possible.

Graham mentions 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 asked homeowners what impression they hoped this space portrayed to others, and what emotions that they wanted to be expressed in the space.

Each of the items displayed in the dwelling space potentially portrays something about your identity or how you think, feel, or act in everyday life.

For example, a religious person might display a religious icon, and a sports fan might display a team pennant. Other items may be displayed in order to make you feel a certain way, such as a photo of you on a vacation that serves as a reminder of how happy you felt at the time.

The organization of the space also says something about you. People who like to entertain will probably organize their spaces in a way that is different from the way an introvert might.

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.

She was surprised at how good she felt when she changed offices. Her previous office of seventeen years looked out on a barren wall in a courtyard. Her 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, Stephen Kaplan, conduct research on what they call “restorative environments.” They are exploring nature’s impact on people’s mental functioning, social relationships, and physical well-being. Others are putting the research into practice by working with architects, interior designers, and city planners to create psychologically healthy buildings and cities.

The Kaplans started by studying people’s attention and distinguished between two types: what they call directed attention and fascination.

The Kaplans propose that too much directed attention leads to what they call directed attention fatigue and the impulsivity, distractibility, and irritability that comes with it.

However, they add, people can recover from that state by indulging in the inherent fascination of nature, which doesn’t necessarily require people to actually venture into the woods.

A view of nature from a window can be very helpful. In one study, the Kaplans found that office workers with a view of nature had less anger, liked their jobs more, enjoy better health, and reported greater life satisfaction.

Drawing on the Kaplans’ research, Terry A. Hartig, an associate professor of applied psychology at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University in Gävle, Sweden, conducted his own experiments on 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 forty-minute sequence of tasks that were deliberately designed to exhaust their direct attention capacity.

After the tasks were completed, some of the participants spent forty minutes walking in a local nature preserve, while another group walked in an urban area, and a third 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, “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. Hartig showed one group of people photographs of a forested area and showed another group of photographs of downtown Stockholm. The photographs of the forested area boosted people’s moods.

Frances E. Kuo, co-director of the Human-Environment 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 in 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 surround- ed 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 at- tention deficit hyperactivity disorder when the children spent more time in the green spaces compared to the barren spaces.