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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 March 30, 2020

    What Does Self-Conscious Mean? (And How to Stop Being It)

    What Does Self-Conscious Mean? (And How to Stop Being It)

    Have you ever walked into a room and felt like your nerves simply couldn’t handle it? Your heart beats fast, you start to sweat, and you feel like all eyes are on you (even if they’re really not). This is just one of the many ways that being self-conscious can rear its ugly head.

    You may not even realize you’re self-conscious, and you may be wondering, “What does self-conscious mean?” That’s a good place to start.

    This article will define self-consciousness, show how practically everyone has faced it at one point or another, and give you tips to avoid it.

    What Does Self-Conscious Mean?

    According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, self-conscious is defined as “conscious of one’s own acts or states as belonging to or originating in oneself.”[1]

    Not so bad, right? There’s another definition, though — one that speaks more to what you’re going through: “feeling uncomfortably conscious of oneself as an object of the observation of others.” For those of us who regularly deal with extreme self-consciousness, that second definition sounds about right.

    There are many different ways self-consciousness can spring up. You may feel self-conscious around people you know, like your family members or closest friends. You may feel self-conscious at work, even though you spend hours every week around your co-workers. Or you may feel self-conscious when out in public and surrounded by strangers. However, you probably don’t feel self-conscious when you’re home alone.

    How to Stop Being Too Self-Conscious

    When you’re in the throes of self-consciousness, it’s nearly impossible to remember how to stop feeling that way. That’s why it’s so important to prepare ahead of time, when you’re feeling ready to tackle the problem instead of succumbing to it.

    Here are a variety of ways to feel better about yourself and stop thinking about how others see you.

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    1. Ask Yourself, “So What?”

    One way to banish negative, self-conscious thoughts is to do just that: banish them.

    The next time you walk into a room and feel your face getting red, think to yourself, “So what?” How much does it really matter if people don’t like how you look or act? What’s the worst that could happen?

    Most of the time, you’ll find that you don’t have a good answer to this question. Then, you can immediately start assigning such thoughts less importance. With self-awareness, you can acknowledge that your negative thoughts are present and realize that you don’t agree with them.[2] They’re just thoughts, after all.

    2. Be Honest

    A lie that self-consciousness might tell is that there’s one way to act or feel. Honestly, though, everyone else is just figuring life out as well. There isn’t a preferred way to show up to an event, gathering, or public place. What you can do is be honest with your feelings and thoughts.[3]

    If you feel offended by something someone says, you don’t have to smile to be polite or laugh to fit in with the crowd. Instead, you can politely say why you disagree or excuse yourself and find a group of people who you relate to better. If you’re nervous, don’t overcompensate by trying to look relaxed and casual — it’ll be obvious you’re putting on a front. Instead, nothing is more endearing than saying, “I’m a little nervous!” to a room of people who probably feel the exact same way.

    On the same note, if you don’t understand why someone wants you to do something, question it. You can do this at work, at home, or even with people you don’t know well. Nobody should force you to do something you don’t want to do.

    Also, even if you’re willing to do what’s asked of you, there’s nothing wrong with asking for more clarification. People will realize that you’re not a person to be bossed around.

    3. Understand Why You’re Struggling at Work

    Being self-conscious at work can get in the way of your daily responsibilities, your relationships with co-workers, and even your career as a whole. If you’re facing some sort of conflict but you’re too nervous to speak up, you may be at the whim of what happens to you instead of taking some control.

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    If you’re usually confident at work, you may be wondering where this new self-consciousness is coming from. It’s possible that you’re dealing with burnout.[4] Common signs are anxiety, fatigue and distraction, all of which can leave you feeling under-confident.

    4. Succeed at Something

    When you create success in your life, it’s easier to feel confident[5] and less self-conscious. If you feel self-conscious at work, finish the project that’s been looming over your head. If you feel self-conscious in the gym, complete an advanced workout class.

    Exposing yourself to what you’re scared of and then succeeding at it in some way (even just by finishing it) can do wonders for your self-esteem. The more confidence you build, the more likely you are to have more success in the future, which will create a cycle of confidence-building.

    5. Treat All of You — Not Just Your Self-Consciousness

    Trying to solve your self-consciousness alone may not treat the root of the problem. Instead, take a well-rounded approach to lower your self-consciousness and build confidence in areas where you may struggle.

    Even professional counselors are embracing this holistic type of treatment[6] because they feel that the health of the mind and body are inextricably linked. This approach combines physical, spiritual, and psychological components. Common activities and treatments include meditation, yoga, massage, and healthy changes to diet and exercise.

    If much of this is new to you, it will pay to give it a try. You never know how it will impact you.

    If you’re feeling self-conscious about how your body looks, a massage that makes you feel great could boost your confidence. If you try a new workout, you could have something exciting to talk about the next time you’re in a group setting.

    Putting yourself in a new situation and learning that you can get through it with grace can give you the confidence to get through all sorts of events and nerve-wracking moments.

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    6. Make the Changes That Are Within Your Control

    Let’s say you walk into a room and you’re self-conscious about how you look. However, you may have put a lot of time and effort into your outfit. Even though it may stand out, this is how you have chosen to express yourself.

    You have to work on your internal confidence, not your external appearance. There’s nothing to change other than your outlook.

    On the other hand, maybe there’s something that you don’t like about yourself that you can change. For example, maybe you hate how a birthmark on your face looks or have varicose veins that you think are unsightly. If you can do something about these things, do it! There’s nothing wrong with changing your appearance (or skills, education, etc.) if it’s going to make you more confident.

    You don’t have to accept your current situation for acceptance’s sake. There’s no award for putting up with something you hate. Confidence is also required to make changes that are scary, even if they’re for the better. Plus, it may be an easier fix than you thought. For example, treating varicose veins doesn’t have to involve surgery — sometimes simple compression stockings will take care of the problem.[7]

    7. Realize That Everyone Has Awkward Moments

    Everyone has said something awkward to someone else and lived to tell the tale. We’ve all forgotten somebody’s name or said, “You too!” when the concession stand girl says to enjoy our movie. Not only are these things uber-common, but they’re not nearly as embarrassing as you feel they are.

    Think about how you react when someone else does something awkward. Do you think, “Wow, that person’s such a loser!” or do you think, “What a relief, I’m not the only one who does that.” Chances are good that’s the same reaction others have to you when you stumble.

    Remember, self-consciousness is a state of mind that you have control over. You don’t have to feel this way. Do what you need to in order to build your confidence, put your self-consciousness in perspective, and start exercising your “I feel awesome about myself” muscle. It’ll get easier with time.

    When Is Being Self-Conscious a Good Thing?

    Self-consciousness can sometimes be a good thing[8], but you have to take the awkwardness and nerves out of it.

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    In this case, “self-aware” is a much better term. Knowing how you come off to people is an excellent trait; you’ll be able to read a room and understand how what you do and say affects others. These are fantastic skills for people work and personal relationships.

    Self-awareness helps you dress appropriately for the occasion, tells you that you’re talking too loud or not loud enough, and guides a conversation so you don’t offend or bore anyone.

    It’s not about being someone you’re not — that can actually have adverse effects, just like self-consciousness. Instead, it’s about turning up certain aspects of yourself to perform well in the situation.

    Final Thoughts

    When you’re self-conscious, you’re constantly battling with yourself in an effort to control how other people view you. You try to change yourself to suit what you think other people want to see.

    The truth, though, is that you can’t actually control how other people view you — and you may not even be correct about how they view you in the first place.

    Being confident doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, it happens in small steps as you slowly build your confidence and say “no” to your self-consciousness. It also requires accepting that you’re going to feel self-conscious sometimes, and that’s okay.

    Sometimes worrying that there is a problem can be more stressful than the problem itself. Feeling bad for feeling self-conscious can be more troublesome than simply feeling it and getting on with the day.

    Forgive yourself for being human and make the small changes that will lead to better confidence in the future.

    More Tips for Improving Your Self-Esteem

    Featured photo credit: Cata via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] Merriam-Webster: Self-conscious
    [2] Bustle: 7 Tips On How To Stop Feeling Self-Conscious
    [3] Marc and Angel: 10 Things to Remember When You Feel Unsure of Yourself
    [4] Bostitch: How to Protect Small Businesses From Burnout
    [5] Psychology Today: Self-conscious? Get Over It
    [6] Wake Forest University: Embracing Holistic Medicine
    [7] Center for Vein Restoration: What Causes Venous Ulcers, and How Are They Treated?
    [8] Scientific American: The Pros and Cons of Being Self-Aware

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