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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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    Last Updated on September 17, 2019

    10 Simple Ways To Always Think Positive Thoughts

    10 Simple Ways To Always Think Positive Thoughts

    Positive thinking can lead to a lot of positive change in your life. Developing an optimistic outlook can be good for both your physical and mental health.

    But sometimes, certain situations arise in life that makes it hard to keep a positive outlook. Take steps to make positive thinking become more like your second nature and you’ll reap the biggest benefits.

    Here are 10 ways to make thinking positive thoughts easy:

    1. Spend Time with Positive People

    If you surround yourself with constant complainers, their negativity is likely to rub off on you.

    Spend time with positive friends and family members to increase the likelihood that their positive thinking habits will become yours too. It’s hard to be negative when everyone around you is so positive.

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    2. Take Responsibility for Your Behavior

    When you encounter problems and difficulties in life, don’t play the role of the victim. Acknowledge your role in the situation and take responsibility for your behavior.

    Accepting responsibility can help you learn from mistakes and prevent you from blaming others unfairly.

    3. Contribute to the Community

    One of the best ways to feel good about what you have, is to focus on what you have to give.

    Volunteer in some manner and give back to the community. Helping others can give you a new outlook on the world and can assist you with positive thinking.

    4. Read Positive and Inspirational Materials

    Spend time each day reading something that encourages positive thinking. Read the Bible, spiritual material, or inspirational quotes to help you focus on what’s important to you in life. It can be a great way to start and end your day.

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    Some recommendations for you:

    5. Recognize and Replace Negative Thoughts

    You won’t be successful at positive thinking if you’re still plagued by frequent negative thoughts. Learn to recognize and replace thoughts that are overly negative. Often, thoughts that include words like “always” and “never” signal that they aren’t true.

    If you find yourself thinking something such as, “I always mess everything up,” replace it with something more realistic such as, “Sometimes I make mistakes but I learn from them.”

    There’s no need to make your thoughts unrealistically positive, but instead, make them more realistic.

    6. Establish and Work Toward Goals

    It’s easier to be positive about problems and setbacks when you have goals that you’re working toward. Goals will give you motivation to overcome those obstacles when you encounter problems along the way. Without clear goals, it’s harder to make decisions and gauge your progress.

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    Learn to set SMART goals to help you achieve more.

    7. Consider the Consequences of Negativity

    Spend some time thinking about the consequences of negative thinking. Often, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    For example, a person who thinks, “I probably won’t get this job interview,” may put less effort into the interview. As a result, he may decrease his chances of getting the job.

    Create a list of all the ways negative thinking impacts your life. It likely influences your behavior, your relationships, and your feelings. Then, create a list of the ways in which positive thinking could be beneficial.

    8. Offer Compliments to Others

    Look for reasons to compliment others. Be genuine in your praise and compliments, but offer it frequently. This will help you look for the good in other people.

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    9. Create a Daily Gratitude List

    If you start keeping a daily gratitude list, you’ll start noticing exactly how much you have to be thankful for. This can help you focus on the positive in your life instead of thinking about all the bad things that have happened in the day.

    Getting in the habit of showing an attitude of gratitude makes positive thinking more of a habit. Here’re 40 Simple Ways To Practice Gratitude.

    10. Practice Self-Care

    Take good care of yourself and you’ll be more equipped to think positively.

    Get plenty of rest and exercise and practice managing your stress well. Taking care of your physical and mental health will provide you with more energy to focus on positive thinking.

    Learn about these 30 Self-Care Habits for a Strong and Healthy Mind, Body and Spirit.

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    Featured photo credit: DESIGNECOLOGIST via unsplash.com

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