People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Tree Houses!

Stressed? Spend some time in a tree house.

Tree houses are growing up. Very lucky kids used to have a tree house; now adults whom fortune has smiled upon also find themselves proud owners of tree houses. Tree houses even have their own show on TV, so they are officially both trendy and important.

The drive to own a tree house doesn’t surprise environmental psychologists. Tree houses give the people in them a protected view out over their world, whether that’s a stretch of the Serengeti or Syracuse. They are cozy retreats above ground level in which the light levels aren’t as bright as outdoors, with views of the sunlit (on a good day), surrounding areas. This sort of place made us really relaxed and comfortable eons ago when we didn’t have too many ways to survive if something large with lots of teeth thought we looked tasty—imagine how good it felt then to hide out in a hard to reach cave on a cliffside. 

In technical psych lingo, tree houses provide us with prospect and refuge. There are other ways to create a similar psychological effect (i.e., a small shelter with a view of a brighter surrounding area): canopy beds, turret rooms, and those egg-like seats where the back of the chair curves up over the head of the sitter, for example. 

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Being in a tree house also, generally, means we have a view out over a space that’s green or has a fountain. Looking at those sorts of scenes helps us restock our stores of mental energy after we run them down doing knowledge work all day.

If your finances and the nearby trees permit, build yourself a tree house. Put a comfortable chair in it and you’ll only leave to earn enough money to keep your property taxes paid. Make sure that the grain of the wood used to construct your tree house is visible when you sit in it—Fell’s research has shown that seeing wood grain de-stresses us.

Tree houses are tree-mendous! Add one, or a similar sanctuary with a view, to your life soon.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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