“We become habituated to the familiar, but the familiar isn’t always healthy,” says yoga teacher Felicia Tomasko. Her words might apply to our relationships, our diets, our jobs, or our surroundings. Sometimes we get so used to living in situations that don’t benefit us that we forget there is an alternative. But look around – is your environment helping or hurting you?
Our minds and bodies are one big source of input, and the saying, “Garbage in, garbage out” seems appropriate. If our senses are bombarded by too much noise, tension, unpleasant colors, harsh light and bad air – if we don’t have someplace to serve as an oasis from all that – if we don’t feel safe and comfortable — the environment will increase stress and contribute to poor health and lower productivity.
The renowned architect and designer Michael Graves says, “I believe well-designed places and objects can actually improve healing, while poor design can inhibit it.” He doesn’t say that lightly. A recent profile in the Washington Post described how Graves was left paralyzed after an illness, and how his experiences turned his work in a new direction. He has first-hand awareness of how the color of a room can lift or sink one’s spirits, or how a lack of accessibility to perform everyday tasks can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. He is now taking on projects that rethink hospitals, senior living centers and housing for wounded military.
We can think of the environment on both the macro and micro levels. The term, “built environment” isn’t a household phrase yet, but it is widely used in the public health community. According to the Prevention Institute, the built environment consists of the “physical structures and infrastructure of communities”; it can encompass how land is zoned, how a community is designed, what kind of housing is available, transportation options and access to green space. The Prevention Institute has highlighted some recent projects that have contributed to healthier communities:
- Building a jogging path through a cemetery in Los Angeles so that people without a park in their neighborhood would have a place to exercise and enjoy green space
- Organizing a community to obtain a full-service grocery store in their area
- Starting a project in Boston for lead-safe backyards for children to play in
- Turning vacant lots into community gardens
- Redesigning an unsafe intersection to make it more pedestrian and community-friendly
- Engaging a community to create murals that improved the aesthetics of their Philadelphia neighborhood
By changing the macro environment in even small ways, people may feel safer, may be able to eat more healthy foods, may enjoy more social support from the community and may have more opportunity to exercise. When a community buys in to projects like these, and uses the assets it has to bring them to fruition, the first project can often serve as a catalyst for on-going improvements to the environment.
Our micro environments, on the other hand, are sometimes easier, or at least quicker, to alter. With fewer people to please, it becomes simpler to take pro-active steps to create a healthier space. Think about how you feel in certain rooms. Are there particular places that you associate with stress? Are there others where you feel more calm or creative? What is it about the space that provokes those feelings? Is it the activities that take place there? Is it the design or usefulness of the area? Does it feel light or dark, cluttered or spacious? What can you change to make your space more conducive to health and well-being? Some things to consider are:
- Having sources of natural light and good ventilation
- Bringing nature indoors – with flowers, a plant, or even a picture of nature
- Rearranging furniture, or even room uses, to better suit how you live and work
- Painting your rooms in colors that please you, or calming colors like blues and greens
- Creating sound that is pleasing – music, water, wind chimes
- Setting aside a place in the home, even a small one, that is free of work, tension and dissension
Philip Johnson has said that “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.” Even without a great architect, can we create those places of contentment for ourselves?