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The Power of Architecture: How the World Around You Shapes Your Thoughts and Actions

The Power of Architecture: How the World Around You Shapes Your Thoughts and Actions

In 1952, polio killed more children in America than any other communicable disease. Nearly 58,000 people were infected that year. The situation was on the verge of becoming an epidemic and the country desperately needed a vaccine.

In a small laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, a young researcher named Jonas Salk was working tirelessly to find a cure. (Years later, author Dennis Denenberg would write, “Salk worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for years.”)

Despite all his effort, Salk was stuck. His quest for a polio vaccine was meeting a dead end at every turn. Eventually, he decided that he needed a break. Salk left the laboratory and retreated to the quiet hills of central Italy where he stayed at a 13th-century Franciscan monastery known as the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.

The basilica could not have been more different than the lab. The architecture was a beautiful combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles. White-washed brick covered the expansive exterior and dozens of semi-circular arches surrounded the plazas between buildings. Inside the church, the walls were covered with stunning fresco paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries and natural light poured in from tall windows.

It was in this space that Jonas Salk would have the breakthrough discovery that led to the polio vaccine. Years later, he would say…

“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct.”
-Jonas Salk

Today, the discovery that Salk made in that Italian monastery has impacted millions. Polio has been eradicated from nearly every nation in the world. In 2012, just 223 cases were reported globally.

Did inspiration just happen to strike Salk while he was at the monastery? Or was he right in assuming that the environment impacted his thinking?

And perhaps more importantly, what does science say about the connection between our environment and our thoughts and actions? And how can we use this information to live better lives?

basilica-san-francesco-dassisi
    Columns and arches at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. (Image by Konrad Glogowski.)

    The Link Between Brains and Buildings

    Researchers have discovered a variety of ways that the buildings we live, work, and play in drive our behavior and our actions. The way we react and respond is often tied to the environment that we find ourselves in.

    For example, it has long been known that schools with more natural light provide a better learning environment for students and test scores often go up as a result. (Natural light and natural air are known to stimulate productivity in the workplace as well.)

    Additionally, buildings with natural elements built into them help reduce stress and calm us down (think of trees inside a mall or a garden in a lobby). Spaces with high ceilings and large rooms promote more expansive and creative thinking.

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    So what does this link between design and behavior mean for you and me?

    Change Your Environment, Change Your Behavior

    Researchers have shown that any habit you have — good or bad — is often associated with some type of trigger or cue. Recent studies (like this one) have shown that these cues often come from your environment.

    This is important because most of us live in the same home, go to the same office, and eat in the same rooms day after day. And that means you are constantly surrounded by the same environmental triggers and cues.

    If your behavior is often shaped by your environment and you keep working, playing, and living in the same environment, then it’s no wonder that it can be difficult to build new habits. (The research supports this. Studies show that it is easier to change your behavior and build new habits when you change your environment.)

    If you’re struggling to think creatively, then going to a wide open space or moving to a room with more natural light and fresh air might help you solve the problem. (Like it seemingly did for Jonas Salk.)

    Meanwhile, if you need to focus and complete a task, research shows that it’s more beneficial to work in a smaller, more confined room with a lower ceiling (without making yourself feel claustrophobic, of course).

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    And perhaps most important, simply moving to a new physical space — whether it’s a different room or halfway around the world — will change the cues that you encounter and thus your thoughts and behaviors.

    Quite literally, a new environment leads to new ideas.

    Putting This Into Practice

    In the future, I hope that architects and designers will use the connection between design and behavior to build hospitals where patients heal faster, schools where children learn better, and homes where people live happier.

    That said, you can start making changes right now. You don’t have to be a victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it. Here’s my simple 2-step prescription for altering your environment so that you can stick with good habits and break bad habits:

    1. To stick with a good habit, reduce the number of steps required to perform the behavior.
    2. To break a bad habit, increase the number of steps required to perform the behavior.

    Here are some examples…

    • Want to watch less TV? Unplug it and put it in a closet. If you really want to watch a show, then you can take it out and plug it back in.
    • Want to drink more water? Fill up a few water bottles and place them around the house so that a healthy drink is always close by.
    • Want to start a business? Join a co-working space where you’re surrounded by dozens of other business owners.

    These are just a few examples, but the point is that shifting your behavior is much easier when you shift to the right environment. Stanford professor BJ Fogg refers to this approach as “designing for laziness.” In other words, change your environment so that your default or “lazy” decision is a better one.

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    By designing your environment to encourage the good behaviors and prevent the bad behaviors, you make it far more likely that you’ll stick to long-term change. Your actions today are often a response the environmental cues that surround you. If you want to change your behavior, then you have to change those cues.

    James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

    This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

    Featured photo credit: teachandlearn via flickr.com

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    James Clear

    James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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    Last Updated on July 10, 2020

    How to Reinvent Yourself and Change Your Life

    How to Reinvent Yourself and Change Your Life

    There will always be times in your life when you may need to learn how to reinvent yourself. This could come when you experience a big change, such as leaving your job, moving on from a relationship, transferring to a new home, or losing a loved one. If you are going through a major shift in your life, you may have to find new ways of thinking or doing things, or risk failing to reach your full potential.

    “When something bad happens, you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.”

    Many people who dared to leave their old unhappy lives enabled themselves to pursue their passions and find a renewed zest for living. You can also achieve the same if you take a leap of faith and make things happen for yourself.

    To help you always be at your best wherever you may be in your life, here are some practical tips on how to reinvent yourself.

    The Reinvention Checklist

    Before embarking on a journey of self-reinvention, you need to make sure that you have everything that you need to make the trip bump-proof. These things include:

    Resilience

    Problems and obstacles are guaranteed to happen. Some of them will be difficult and may knock you off course; the important thing, however, is that you learn from these difficulties, never lose focus, and always get back up. This requires building resilience to get through the tough times.

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    Support

    Humans are social beings. Although it is important that you learn to rely on yourself when facing any challenge, it is also important to have a support team that you can lean on to give you a boost when things get too tough and to correct you when you’re making mistakes.

    The key is to find the right balance between independence and dependence. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and share the difficulties you’re facing. When you open up, you’ll find the people who are really going to be there for you.

    Self-Care

    During the process of learning how to reinvent yourself, you will have to pull yourself away from your old comfort zones, habits, roles, and self-perceptions. This can be difficult and cause you to question your self-worth, so it’s important to engage in self-care to maintain a positive outlook and keep your mind and body healthy as you face the challenges that await you. Self-care can include:

    • Participating in a hobby you enjoy
    • Spending time with your support system
    • Taking some time to walk in nature
    • Practicing loving-kindness meditation

    Find what works for you and what helps you feel like your true self as you seek a reinvented version of you.

    How to Reinvent Yourself

    Once you’re sure that you’re equipped with all the tools in the self-reinvention checklist, you can begin your journey of learning how to reinvent yourself.

    1. Discover Your Strengths

    This step provides valuable information on how you deal with certain situations. If you have this information, you will be able to manage difficulties more efficiently.

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    To find out what your strengths are, you can ask your friends and colleagues for feedback, engage in self-reflection, or try these 10 Ways to Find Your Own Personal Strengths.

    2. Plan

    This step calls for a thorough assessment of your current emotional, psychological, and financial status so that you can develop plans that are realistic and practical.

    It’s okay to have ambitious dreams, but your plans have to be realistic. Making use of SMART goals can help you plan your life better.

    You can also consult your mentor or life coach for practical tips and advice.

    Ultimately, you’ll want to create specific long-term and short-term goals that you can create milestones for. By doing this, you’ll lay out a specific roadmap to your reinvented self.

    3. Try Things Out

    Sometimes, we don’t know if solutions actually work until we try them out. This is why it is important to experiment whenever possible, especially if you’re dealing with a career change. You may need to simply experiment in order to find the things you like. This can be the same with hobbies. If you’re not sure what you would like doing, accept invitations from friends to join them in their favorite sport or take a class, like pottery or photography.

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    By seeing what’s out there in any area of your life, you’ll have a better chance of finding the things you enjoy and the goals you want to create.

    4. Manage Your Finances Well

    Changes may require a bit of money. If you’re shifting to a new career, you may have to pay for training. If you’re going through a tough divorce or having a hard time dealing with the death of a loved one, you may have to pay for therapy. If you’re moving to a new home, you’ll definitely have to pay a whole lot of expenses.

    All of these things are possible, but it will require a bit of money savviness as you learn how to reinvent yourself. If you have that cushion, you’ll feel more comfortable straying from your current path to try new things.

    5. Muster Your Courage

    Fears and self-doubt may arise when you encounter difficulties and setbacks. Sometimes, they may also come when you’re taking risks. You have to manage these negative emotions well and not allow them to discourage you. Tap into your courage and try doing at least one new thing each week to develop it.

    Learn how to deal with your self-doubts to move forward in this article: How Self Doubt Keeps You Stuck (And How to Overcome It)

    6. Use Your Support Group

    As stated above, you need to build a strong support group before you even start the process of reinventing yourself. Your group will keep you from taking wrong turns and encourage you when you get too weighed down by problems. Don’t be afraid to call them, or even ask them out for coffee if you need to vent about the current difficulties you’re facing.

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    7. Remind Yourself Every Day of Your Commitment

    Write your goals on different-sized cards and scatter them at home and at work in places where you can easily see them. This way, you will constantly be reminded of where you want to be. Remember, writing down your goals helps them stick[1].

    8. Accept Failure, Learn, and Resume Your Journey

    Failing is normal, especially when we’re trying out something new. When you fail, simply recognize it, learn from it, and move on. Failure, in the end, is the best way to learn what does and doesn’t work, and you simply won’t be able to learn how to reinvent yourself if you don’t accept the inevitable failures that await you.

    Final Thoughts

    If you truly want to learn how to reinvent yourself and live the life you desire, take the advice above and start taking action. It will take time, patience, and plenty of effort to make the change you want happen, but it will be all worth it.

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    Featured photo credit: Ashley Rich via unsplash.com

    Reference

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