From choosing houseplants to the proper chairs, science has a lot to teach us about creating joyful spaces that promote healing and togetherness.
When Susan Froetschel, a mystery writer, moved from Washington, D.C., to East Lansing, Michigan, for her husband’s teaching job, she had only a week to find their new home. Her real-estate broker was certain she had the perfect house. It was in the location Susan wanted—just blocks from the town’s main street—and at $130,000 well within the couple’s budget. Still, Susan balked.
“From the front it was completely plain and boxy without any outdoor space,” she says. “I didn’t even want to walk inside.” But the interior was lovely, and Susan had a vision of an enclosed front porch lined with windows on three sides. Today, some three years later, the 20-by-8-foot porch, with its view of a maple tree, is the blissful center of Susan’s home. “The porch is shelter and observatory,” Susan says. “It connects us to nature and to our neighborhood. It’s where my husband and I eat, entertain, work and talk late into the night. Neighbors walk by, and we wave them in for a cup of tea or a glass of wine.”
Four months before her August 2013 wedding, while working nonstop to launch a new website, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jessica Greenwalt broke her engagement. She moved from the San Francisco apartment she’d shared with her fiancé into a rental in Berkeley. With its layers of beige paint and bare lightbulbs standing in for fixtures, “it was depressing,” Jessica says, “and it was making me even more depressed.” Once she got her startup off the ground, Jessica devoted a week to create a place that reflected her frilly, ornate taste. She painted her living room walls antique yellow, replaced those naked bulbs with chandeliers, filled the apartment with vintage French Victorian furniture and placed antique knickknacks on the favorite landing places of her parakeet Lord Jello Worthington II. “I took a comically rundown apartment,” Jessica says, “and turned it into a home that reflects who I am and what I love.”
In 1997, Esther Sternberg, a neuroimmunologist, lost her mother to breast cancer. Along with her grief, she was experiencing intense pain from inflammatory arthritis in her knees, wrists and shoulders. When friends invited Esther to stay in their cottage on the Greek Island of Crete, she was grateful for the change of scenery. Every day she swam in the Mediterranean and climbed the pebbly pathways, “at first hesitating,” she says, “then with increasing confidence,” to a stone chapel that sat on the ruins of an ancient temple to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. By the time she left Crete 10 days later, Esther was on the path to healing.
She was also on her way to becoming one of the most prominent scientists studying the interaction between our environment and our physical and psychological wellbeing.
“What we see, what we smell, what we touch in our environment can improve our mood and our health and help us heal,” says Esther, the founding director of the University of Arizona’s Institute on Place and Wellbeing. We may not be conscious of it, she writes in Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, but a place can trigger memories and habits that can “cause us to spiral down into despair” or “rescue us in times of need.”
All of us, Esther says, can create surroundings that tap our brain’s “internal pharmacies.” And it’s in our homes where we have the greatest capacity to take advantage of this environmental Prozac, says Travis Stork, an emergency-room physician and co-host of the syndicated talk show The Doctors. “People underestimate the impact our homes have on our health,” Travis says. “But, I’ve seen in the ER and in my own life that our home can go a long way in either undermining or enhancing our physiological and emotional health.”
If you want a blueprint for happiness, modern science can help provide it. As environmental psychologists study the effects of physical space on mood and emotions, neuroarchitects—a mashup of neuroscience and design—investigate how our physical surroundings influence brain processes such as stress, emotion and memory. Together, their findings suggest that the purchases we make at Home Depot or Pottery Barn can affect us in ways we never would have imagined.
Consider the matter of buying a chair. Sally Augustin, Ph.D., editor of Research Design Connections, says that psychologists studying the implications of the way we sit found that our posture influences “the rich chemical stew in our brains.” People sitting up straighter have more positive views of themselves than people slouching. Sitting in a way that allows you to take up as much room as possible leads you to feel more powerful and have a higher tolerance for risk. Even padding matters. People perched on hard chairs are much more inflexible during negotiations than those on soft seats. So, when it comes to planning the family vacation, move the conversation from the stiff-backed Queen Anne chairs in your dining room into the living room with its upholstered sofa and easy chairs.
Science also explains why we’re so willing to pay more for a room with a view: it’s good medicine. A 1984 study by psychologist Roger Ulrich found that surgical patients in a Pennsylvania hospital whose windows overlooked a small stand of trees left the hospital a full day sooner, had fewer complications and required less pain medication than patients with views of a brick wall. In 2006, neuroscientist Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California would discover that there’s a part of our brains, the parahippocampal cortex, that responds to sweeping views. Rich in opiate receptors, the site releases endorphins, our feel-good hormones, when we gaze at pleasing vistas.
What Esther calls the brain’s “beautiful view spot” can be tickled not just by the hills of Crete but by a sliver of sky above a city skyline. Or, even by a painting or photography. In a recent study at a men’s detention center in Sonoma County, California, a mural of a savanna grassland was installed in the booking area, and versions of the same scene were placed over the cell blocks. The researchers wanted to see what, if any, impact the landscape would have on the correctional officers. They outfitted them with heart monitors, and the findings were striking. After the murals were mounted, the heart rates of the correctional officers were considerably slower when they began their shifts than they were pre-mural. And their heart rates didn’t spike by the end of their shifts the way they typically did.
Researchers say we’re hard-wired to respond to nature because our survival as a species depended on careful observation of it. We needed to know how to respond to weather, spot predators, find refuge, farm and hunt when there was sunlight and sleep when there was none. Roger Ulrich, who did the study of hospital-room views, has said, “When we recognize those elements today, even if we’re highly stressed or sick, our blood pressure lowers, our immune system functions better, and we feel less stressed.”
Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson coined the term “biophilic design” to describe architecture or design that connects us with a living environment. To get a biophilic buzz, we don’t need to let goats graze in our living room. We can stay in touch with the cycle of sunlight—and our own circadian rhythms—by placing sheer curtains on our windows. Or, says Sally, even incorporating visible wood grain into our environment, through hardwood floors or unpainted maple or walnut furniture, will have a calming effect.
Creating what Sally calls a more “place happy” home isn’t rocket science. Or even neuroscience. But it does require us to approach buying, remodeling or decorating tweaks to our home with introspection. Architect Sarah Susanka is the author of a series of best-selling books such as The Not So Big House, Not So Big Remodeling and Not So Big Solutions for Your Home. Her philosophy is that instead of focusing on square footage and traditional room plans, we think instead about what it takes to create a home that’s an expression of our authentic self. “When our houses reflect who we really are,” she says, “we end up feeling much more at home in our lives.”
Sarah says her clients are often uneasy ceding control to an interior designer. “It’s like walking onto the stage set of somebody else’s home,” she says. “It’s filled with beautiful things but it doesn’t feel like their home because these objects don’t have any meaning to them.” Jessica understands that feeling. She says her “extravagant design outburst,” was unleashed by the disquiet she felt when she moved into her former fiancé’s apartment, which was furnished to suit his tastes. “He preferred industrial-style design,” she says, “and while everything was nice, it didn’t reflect me at all. I always felt like a visitor in my own home.”
Sarah suggests keeping a place journal for home-improvement projects—large or small. Make notes about the places in your life that make you comfortable and uncomfortable. Take photos and make diagrams; you might admire the beauty of a soaring greenhouse but feel diminished by the scale of the space. Supplement with pages from your favorite magazines or websites.
“Our home is not just a visual thing, it’s a feel thing,” says Maxwell Ryan, creator of the design website Apartment Therapy. Sound and texture, Maxwell says, are important elements in creating an environment that feels nurturing. “Most people want their homes to be a retreat from the world,” he says, “a place where they can recharge. You won’t achieve that with rooms that feel noisy and harsh.” Maxwell is a strong advocate of the noise dampening effect of fabric. “Whether it’s curtains, rugs, wall hangings or upholstered furniture,” he says, “fabric can give a room a quieter and more peaceful feeling.”
8 Steps to a Happier Home
Use space creatively. Make a dining room double as a library by adding bookshelves. Place area rugs beneath furniture arrangements to define areas for reading, conversation and work.
Bring in the houseplants. Greenery helps sharpen focus, boost immunity, clear the air and boost our spirits. For a natural sleep aid, keep potted lavender in your bedroom. According to NASA, plants can remove up to 87 percent of gases like benzene and formaldehyde within 24 hours.
Make a breeze. Movement in a room will remind us of a meadow on a spring day.
Arrange seating for conversation. Not every chair should face the TV.
Have a focal point in each room. A fireplace, bay window, sculpture or potted palm tree are all good forms of visual punctuation.
Move away from the walls. Place furniture in a way that lets people meander around the space, but make sure everyone’s back is protected. Create “symbolic” points of protection with standing lamps and console tables.
Create a space of your own. We all yearn for an area of retreat. This can be a window seat or a corner of a room framed with a folding screen for quiet contemplation.
Cultivate smart messiness. For all the books on banishing clutter, décor that’s too minimalist can rob us of ways to highlight our values and interests. Decorate with travel mementos, family photos and objects that evoke happy memories.