Here is the latest in the science of surroundings.
Biophilia may or may not be a word you’re familiar with, but it’s the reason that everything from your yoga studio to your accountant’s office has a peace lily in it. In 2005, author Richard Louv proposed that not seeing your greens could cause Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), a low-mood condition similar to Seasonal Affective Disorder (Sad).
The science of why is down to a three circles model, where wellbeing is a delicately weighted balance between drive, contentment and threat.
“Being constantly driven at work can mean our threat response is overactive, positive emotions are reduced, and we become anxious. Nature reduces sympathetic nervous activity associated with drive, and increases parasympathetic nervous activity associated with calm,” says Dr Miles Richardson, director of psychology at the University of Derby.
Relaxation comes whether you bathe in a forest or simply look at some roses – so it’s not necessarily being in nature that relaxes you, but feeling connected to it. “Simply noticing three good things in nature every day, such as a flower growing on the pavement, increases connectedness and, therefore, wellbeing,” adds Richardson.
A brief view of a green rooftop can restore attention span, while an Austrian study found timber-built classrooms reduced children’s stress levels by 8,600 heartbeats a day. Virtual nature has an impact too – but looking at a photograph or reproduction is not as great as the real thing. Which is why green infrastructure – natural materials and planting in concrete-heavy zones – is now as coveted as the old corner office.
There’s a reason that getting the window seat is such a big deal – it is, in fact, scientifically good for us. A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that sitting by a window during your working day results in 46 minutes more sleep every night.
Where windows-for-all isn’t an option, architects are plugging into the new trend for circadian lighting: LED systems that mimic the angle and colour of the sun to sync with our bodies’ awake and sleep cycles. So get as close to natural light patterns as possible and the effects will be more alert mornings, better concentration and 25% better memory recall.
Polluted air doesn’t just create temporary physical symptoms such as problematic skin, and irritated eyes, nose and throat, it also contributes to the risk of chronic illnesses – but new tech is assisting the fightback against bad air.
“The world’s first smartphone with air-quality sensors was released in February. Soon, more and more people will have the technology in their pocket to measure the quality of air around them,” explains Joe Croft, head of environmental and sustainability at Overbury, a wellbeing-focused fit-out firm.
So what exactly makes for healthier air? Experts agree that TVOCs – that’s total volatile organic compounds – emitted by cleaning products, office equipment and building materials are bad news. Better quality air is characterised by low concentrations of carbon dioxide and fewer allergens and asthmagens. Add in good ventilation via fresh air and high ceilings, and you could find yourself getting 11% more done, simply by breathing.
Colour of creativity
The psychology of shades has been a talking point ever since psychologist Angela Wright identified how colour influences our reactions back in 1984. Today, much of the focus is on how our environment spurs creativity. Sensory “triggers”, such as different textures of materials, are thought to keep the brain engaged, improving our ability to access knowledge.
The significance of colour is also now thought to vary depending on where you are. According to the Human Spaces report, creativity is best boosted by green and purple colours in the UK, red design accents in India and water features in Brazil.
Immersed in water
The effect of urban water on wellbeing is the very latest area of environmental research. While the value of green space is in no doubt – the charity Fields in Trust equates the health benefit of the UK’s parks to around £34bn – water features, such as rivers, are less well examined. A special project over the next two years will look at how 18,000 Europeans’ lives are influenced by water, meaning we could soon be splashing around a new buzzword: blue health.