People, Places, and Things

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

Keeping Change in Check

Familiar places and things can boost our mood.

As each January begins, scores of New Year’s resolutions are made.  And broken.  It’s important for all of us to be happy, healthy, wealthy (at least in spirit), and wise, but planning to make too many changes is destined not to work out well.

Design psychologists have found that lots of change can lead to lots of unhappiness.  We favor the familiar in the physical worlds that surround us.

Being around and experiencing familiar things generally makes us comfortable and boosts our mood. We prefer to look at art we find familiar, for example.  Familiar doesn’t mean exactly the same as other things we’ve seen, however.  It means that most of the elements in a picture are predictable, but not all of them.  If paintings of the British countryside are your thing, add new art that features rolling hills, etc., but don’t be surprised to find yourself purchasing an image completed with green rolling fields and a few purple cows. 

Physical things that are familiar can bring to mind all sorts of positive memories we associate with times past. But object-associated memories can be a reason to make a change as well. If something really negative happened somewhere -- you learned of an unexpected death while sitting in your breakfast nook, for example -- changes in the décor may be in order – for example, consider changing the upholstery on its seats.

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We can relax when we believe we can predict what's coming next, and it’s reasonable to assume that whatever we’re about to experience will be pleasant. That’s why being on a gently curving paths in beautiful, peaceful gardens boost our mood.

Troisi and Gabriel have found that comfort food can help people feel less lonely - a valuable insight if you need to spend time alone. Their work indicates that eating comfort foods makes people think about relationships, and people who have positive associations to relationships then feel less lonely. This research was done with food, but since there are such strong associations between scents and eating experiences, it seems reasonable to extend these findings to smells associated with comfort foods - dig out that vanilla scented candle!

The familiar can support a wonderful future.

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

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