Environmental Psychology

In todays research into happiness, a wide array of aspects is discussed on how to lead a satisfying and rewarding life. Things like relationships, positive thinking and doing things you love are in focus. Although, there is one aspect that everyone seems to be missing, one aspect that affects our life on a deep and meaningful level. That factor is the physical environment in which we spend our lives; The buildings we work in, the pavements where we take our morning walk and the playgrounds where we made our most dearest childhood memories.

Is it a mere coincidence that the people living in Hawaii, a country well-known for their white beaches and turquoise oceans, is ranked as one of the most happiest places around the world? Is it a coincident that worn-down, poor districts, mostly made up of concrete, is over represented in the statistics of mental-illness?

If we look past the aspect of happiness and instead look at our mental performance, we can out of our own experience witness that some places are considerately better for focus and concentration, than others. According to an experiment published in Science the year 2009, psychologist from the university of Columbia, claimed that the color of the wall had an impact on our mental performance. When the wall was blue, the test subjects performed badly on tests focusing on short-term memory. Although when it came to creative and abstract thinking, they instead excelled. The explanation to this was deeply rooted in the psychology and the associations we have with deep blue skies and oceans, which is something we learned from childhood is associated with calmness and relaxation. This relaxation in turn lead to an increase in creativity.

That the physical environment has an impact on how we think and act is obvious. It is partly the reason why the search for a nice home is so central in our lives; we are constantly looking for a new and better physical environment. We do this by looking for the nicest residence, renovate and make nice interior design, but also by moving and traveling to beautiful places. That is what this blog will be about – how we interact with our environment and how the environment interacts with us, especially through an architectural perspective.




Happy home

In The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton discusses what makes a physical space have such big impact on us. He argues that our personality is so diverse, that we have several different versions of ourselves and that each one becomes visible in response to different physical environment. Maybe our more academic and inspired self shines through when we enter a space with light shining through big windows and with a clean organized desk, ready for you to do your research at. Maybe our calmest and most comfortable self is present when we enter the cozy sanctuary that is our home, when we cuddle up in our living room sofa.

A home (in contrast to a house), is at its essence, a place where your truest self is reflected. A place where you feel at peace, comfortable and happy. Alternatively, you might instead feel inspired, intelligent and ambitious. If you enjoy social interactions with your family members, living room sofas and armchairs might be pointed at each other, instead of at the television. If you are a person of big integrity, it might feel more private to have a bathroom located beside your bedroom instead of in the hallway. If you appreciate art or poetry, you cover your walls accordingly. Ultimately, your home should be a reflection of who you are – or who you would like to be. Atleast if you want it to be a happy home.



The Architecture of Happinesss by Alain de Botton

Making friends with buildings

As the analytical and intelligent beings that we are, we are very quick to find patterns in our environment. In some cases we find patterns where they don’t even exist. This may sound odd, but the reason why you might find the Wolkswagen Beetle cute, is because you subconsciously associate its chubby, roundish shape, with a small child. Same goes for muscle cars such as the Hummer with its powerful and somewhat square build, which resembles the facial features of a masculine man. The fact alone that we can describe a physical, inanimate object with human features such as cute, manly or feminine, proves that we easily create relationships with our objects and buildings.

In fact, this phenomenon has become a whole area for scientific research and goes under the name Pareidoila; to see human features and patterns where they doesn’t exist. Pareidoila is also the reason why people has reported to finding the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. Why we do this, is because our imagination affects our perception of the world much more than we think. When our eyes observe a visual stimuli, our brains are responsible for interpreting and understanding what we see. This interpretation is then partly affected by our past experiences, values and our expectations of what we are going to see. One of the theories that tries to explain this, goes back to the beginning of mankind where our understanding of the world stopped at what we could see and observe. What we didn’t quite understand, we tried to explain from what we actually do know and often that meant explaining things from a perspective of human conditions. Everything from a bolt of lightning, to something as abstract as death or our own reflection in water could be explained by human like causes. This is in turn what started religion and spirituality; Gods, mythical creatures and curses- all are explanations of the world through what we already know.

So now we have went in depth into our ability to find human patterns in our environment and how we go through our lives interpreting and understanding physical places and buildings by projecting human features on them. In this sense we give our buildings a soul, since we project traits like femininity, dominance, wisdom and power to them. Take the Empire State Building for example, a high and mighty construction, that rises through the skyline of Manhattan, in a way that closely resembles a confident businessman. As Alain de Botton says in his book Architecture of Happiness, all buildings we like or dislike, is simply a reflection of what we like or dislike in a person.

”What we search for in a work of architecture is in the end not so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.”




The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

How buildings become symbols

A building has a very important function as a symbol. According to the psychological perspective cognitive psychology, a big part of the thoughts we have is a consequence of the constant sensory input we experience through our senses of hearing, taste, seeing, smelling and our sense of touch. Therefore, the world we live in is constantly interpreted by our fast thinking minds. This is something architects are well aware of when they design buildings.

Since our brain learns by comparing and connecting already learned information, our associative ability is very good. That associations is a big part of our psychology has long been known, for example before world war 2 when Sigmund Freud used the method of ”free associations” to treat patients through mental illness. Advertisers and marketers know this too and frequently use the power of association for their products. For example, the British juice and smoothie brand, innocent. When we hear the name and see their logo representing a orange with a halo, we subconsciously make the conclusion that this brand is humane, kind and eco-friendly. All thanks to the power of association.

If an architect has in aim to design a courthall, a strong, sturdy building with white marble pillars at front, gives the feeling of trust and power. But why is it this way? Why can’t a bungalow built in pure palmtrees give the same impression? This is all because of our powerful ability to make associations – throughout life we learn how to understand and interpret the metaphoric symbols that are around us. The earlier mentioned strong, sturdy marble-white building takes inspiration from ancient greece; the modern civilisations birthplace, where things like democracy, philosophy and modern science were essential parts of society. You can probably guess where this is going. Because of the associations we have with ancient greece, the courthall that has it’s inspiration from there, gives the exact same reaction.

Architects have on several occasions tried to replicate and reuse old symbols, often with great success. Our psychology makes this associations at the blink of an eye and therefore these buildings talk to us. Take one of France’s most visited places, the Louvre, which today is the worlds most visited museum and global center for culture and art. Just by looking at the building, we can draw the conclusion that it indeed is interesting, although we often miss to notice that it’s geometrical form is identical to the shape used to design the first pyramids of ancient egypt.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hha0NsYXS5c Why the buildings of tomorrow will be shaped by … you made by Marc Kushner for Ted Talks