It’s an intriguing question: can where you are increase your happiness and improve your health?
The answer would seem to be an obvious “yes.” Many people find beautiful landscapes, long views from the tops of tall buildings, soaring interiors, and places engineered for fun a source of pleasure and positive mood arousal.
Likewise, to improve our physical and mental wellbeing, we go to the gym, walk through parks, check into hospitals and wellness centers, and spend time in meditation rooms or secluded hilltop retreats.
In each of these cases, the nature of our surroundings functions as a vehicle to self-betterment. Change the place, and the state of our minds and bodies might change as well.
At least, that’s what many of us believe intuitively. But intuition is not necessarily fact when it comes to analyzing human behavior; sometimes it is illusory. Fortunately, over the past several decades researchers have been exploring the various ways that our surroundings influence how we think, feel and act, with the goal of validating intuitive inferences with scientifically verified deduction. The branch of science that analyzes the relationship between space and self is called environmental psychology.
Most accounts of the history of environmental psychology will tell you that the field emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While this may be true from an institutional and academic standpoint, in truth the groundwork was laid at least a decade before in a brilliantly conceived experiment led by a man who later became a founding father of positive psychology. Let’s start by looking at this seminal study, and then explore some of the ways that you can apply its lessons to improving your own health and happiness through the manipulation of space.
Abraham Maslow and the Beautiful Room
Abraham Maslow (1908–1970) is most famous for a theory of motivation that builds on a five-part Hierarchy of Needs. Much less discussed, however, is an experiment he ran in the 1950s to examine the impact of the physical environment on the human psyche. Which is too bad, because it deserves to be better known.
Here’s how the experiment worked. Maslow, with the help of his wife and his colleague Norbett L. Mintz, furnished three rooms in a facility at Brandeis University, where he and Mintz taught.
The first was called the Beautiful Room. It had large draped windows, and was tastefully embellished with soft lighting, artwork, a comfortable chair, bookcase, mahogany desk, and handsome rug.
The second was designated the Average Room; it was neat and clean but otherwise workaday in its decor and arrangement — a standard off-the-rack academic’s office, if you will.
The third was dubbed the Ugly Room, and wholly lived up to its name. The walls were dirty and painted a dull gray. A light fixture with a torn shade hung overhead, the better to see the tin-can ashtrays, boxes, mops, disused box spring, and bare mattress flung haphazardly around the room.
Student volunteers were directed into one of these three rooms. Each participant was provided with an identical stack of photographic headshots, with instructions to rank them individually on a numerical scale for their “energy” and “well-being.”
Now, you might expect that the scores turned in by the subjects would be more or less the same no matter which room they sat in; after all, the picture sets were identical. Surely a nice floor covering or a touch of mood lighting wouldn’t be enough to affect a person’s judgment. Decoration is just eye candy, right?
Wrong. The divergence among the ranking results was substantial. Subjects who evaluated the photos in the Ugly and Average Rooms were considerably more negative in their scoring than subjects completing the evaluation in the Beautiful Room.
Even less expectedly, the different settings also negatively affected the proctors who administered the exercise. Examiners interacting with students in the messy room were observed to be more irritable, fatigued, and prone to complain about the work than after performing their duties in the nicer space.
Conclusion: environment does indeed influence state of mind. People tend to be happier with themselves, more positive in their outlook on the world, and more energized when they’re in a beautiful setting versus mediocre or downright unattractive surroundings.
Maslow came to believe that aesthetic satisfaction was not merely a pleasant experience to be enjoyed from time to time, but a fundamental human need that people must fill in order to realize their fullest potential and attain happiness. This was reflected in the later expansion of his original five-part schema into an eight-part model of personal growth, where he inserted the need for aesthetic gratification near the top of his hierarchy, just below self-actualization (i.e., self-fulfillment) and transcendence (helping others).
So how can we apply Maslow’s findings to our own lives?
The obvious answer is to seek out beautiful environments, while avoiding those that are run-of-the-mill or out-and-out ugly. To do that, however, entails developing a sensitivity to your surroundings. It means picking up your head and thinking deeply about what’s around you. That’s no easy task in our age of visual overload, when we need to filter out most of what we see in order to manage the streams of information entering through our senses, but it’s the first step in realizing self-actualization through space.
Another potential strategy is to raise the standard of what you’re willing to accept in the built environment. The fact that the ratings in Maslow’s experiment were nearly as low for the subjects in the Average Room as they were for those in the Ugly Room suggests that mediocrity can be as emotionally debilitating as squalidness. Maslow’s findings tell us that it’s not enough for an environment be neat and tidy, or merely meet its minimum pragmatic requirements of keeping us warm and dry while we pursue our daily activities in our around it. It must also satisfy non-material, aesthetic needs if it’s to serve as an active agent of health and happiness.
Beauty Big and Small
While Maslow’s experiment unfolded in the context of discrete, enclosed spaces, its lessons are applicable to both exterior and interior environments on both a macro and micro scale. By macro I mean the larger, publicly accessible settings over which we have only partial control as individuals. These include the streets, towns, cities, and civic institutions that populate the places where we live and work, as well as the rural, undeveloped countryside used for recreation and relaxation.
Although you can’t dictate the character of macro environments by yourself, you certainly can play a role in determining what they look like. Agitating for better product from the local development and design communities, encouraging friends and neighbors to take an interest in improving the character of the community, working to preserve natural landscapes where appropriate, and holding government agencies to the same quality standards in building and maintaining public spaces and amenities as we might hold ourselves, are among the available tactics for elevating our shared surroundings from the banal to places that induce happiness and sustain physical wellbeing.
Micro environments, on the other hand, are partially or entirely subject to your control. These typically include the home, and to varying degrees, your place of work. Home, especially, takes on special resonance in the landscape of health and happiness by virtue of its unique status as the one place on earth we can potentially call our own. Commit the time and effort in making the domestic environment as harmonious and appealing as possible; the EROI (Emotional Return on Investment) can be substantial.
Now, you might be wondering if only people who have an innate eye or taste for beauty or have received training in a design discipline are affected by the aesthetic quality of the physical environment.
Not so. Consider the subjects in Maslow’s study. They were a semi-random assortment of student volunteers drawn from a liberal arts college. It’s safe to assume that their areas of academic interest and artistic skills or interests varied pretty broadly. Yet their reactions to their respective settings were consistent across the sampling.
This suggests that a positive response to beauty (and a negative reaction to ugliness) is hardwired into our brains, rather than reliant on personal taste or skill. There may be reasons for Nature having engineered us this way; according to some neuroscientists, we’ve been designed to experience positive reinforcement in the presence of beauty in order to stimulate procreation among specimens deemed to be the fittest — aesthetically driven eugenics, you might call it.
A more compelling concern you might take from Maslow’s study is that while nearly everyone can benefit from high quality environments, not everyone is equally capable of creating one themselves. Witness the famed psychologist’s reliance on his wife’s interior design know-how in devising the Beautiful Room.
Fair enough. We can no more be expected to become instantly adept at creating beautiful environments than we can instantly become award-winning chefs. It takes practice and study, like any other skill. But, like cooking, it is 1) fun to learn; and 2) able to be learned by just about anyone willing to make the effort, there being no shortage of printed, visual and human resources out there to help.
Finally, I want to dispel any notion that by beautiful I necessarily mean expensive or elaborate. While no pictures of the Beautiful Room appear to exist, it is doubtful that Maslow and team had a big budget when it came to fitting out their three spaces. Similarly, there’s no reason you need spend a fortune to enhance your micro environments. In fact, some of the most visually compelling spaces in the world are those characterized by near monastic austerity, reliant as they are on light and nature as much as on objects and detail.
It is often said that feelings of happiness and health come from within. Thanks to Abraham Maslow and his colleagues, we now know that sometimes they come from without as well.