The Power of Places

Exploring the effects of environment on emotion and behavior.

Can We Change Ourselves Simply by Changing Location?

The answer to happiness may be as simple as changing our environment.

Typically, we think of ourselves as physically separate from the environment that surrounds us: as Shakespeare wrote, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players..." We each perceive ourselves as the star of our own movie, filled with drama and romance, lots of comedy, and a dose of tragedy, interacting with other co-stars and supporting actors. But the stage of our lives, or our surrounding environment, is usually regarded as secondary in importance, or even completely irrelevant, to our mental well-being. 

But a different viewpoint takes the stance that we are not, in fact, just shades passing through an endless backdrop of changing set pieces and scenery as we live out our lives. Rather, we are in and of the world, and that our well-being, self-concept, and state of mind integrate with, and are influenced by, where we are at any given moment. In the same way that mind and body are no longer viewed as separate entities from each other, but rather, interconnected pieces that work together to influence our state of overall well-being, "self" and "surroundings" may in fact be a similarly false dichotomy.

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So what? How does this fairly theoretical musing on people in places hold any meaning or relevant application for someone just trying to get through the day with a minimum of stress and a fair amount of satisfaction?

Simply this: similar to a chameleon that changes its coloring to most effectively adapt to its environment, so too, do we change in slight to marked ways when our surrounding environment changes. Though we can easily identify contextually appropriate fashion as evidence of the environmental influence on external appearance (e.g., you won't be seeing flip-flops and bikinis in a standard board meeting), we actually undergo change at a deeper level in different environments.

We may not think about it much, but consider how you gear up for the day ahead as you get ready in the morning and shift fully into "work-mode" as you walk through the door of your office. Though each person may approach his or her day differently, chances are when you get home in the evening, you go through a bit of a transition period before downshifting into "me-time." And the two typically bear little resemblance to each other: it's why a friend of mine, married to a prosecuting attorney with an aggressive reputation in court, said she can barely recognize her gentle and attentive husband in his loud, confrontational voice booming through the house on work calls.

The easiest example of this deeper change in response to environment is to imagine the place you go (or dream of going) for rejuvenation when you feel stressed and exhausted. Where are you fantasizing about going when you're one meeting away from screaming: "I need a vacation!"? If a few hours sprawled on the couch in front of your TV sprang immediately to mind, think about how you usually feel after a Bravo channel marathon, and then dig a little deeper to compare this slightly sick and groggy feeling to the refreshed feeling that comes after working in your garden, hiking through a forest, lying on a beach, sitting in a park, running or biking on a trail, listening to waves lap the shore, or even just taking a few deep breaths outside.

Physiological responses including decreased arousal levels, increased attentional capacity, and even faster emotional processing have been well-documented in these naturally restorative environments. Our physiological, psychological, and emotional states change as our surroundings change. Natural places relax us. We're able to focus better and we feel more emotionally engaged. 

You can already see where this is going. The average American's typical day consists of rushing out of the home into a climate-controlled vehicle, driving to a covered garage, taking an elevator to an artificially lit and heated hermetically sealed office or cubicle, only to stare at an artificially glowing screen for most of one's waking hours, before returning to the climate-controlled transportation which is then driven straight into the garage at home. In the short, dark days of the winter months, it is entirely possible for the average person to completely miss seeing natural daylight. It's no wonder that we feel stressed out, drained, and entirely disconnected (even as we jump online to check email/Facebook/Twitter for the umpteenth hour). 

When we feel relaxed, we feel our minds quiet, the distracting mental chatter and noise recedes, and we start to feel more attuned to ourselves and the environment around us. In short, we feel more connected.

In research on the effects of environmental therapy, feelings of disconnection from the natural world can result in psychological symptoms such as anxiety, frustration and depression. And conversely, "ecotherapy" practices that increase connection with nature have been shown to relieve these symptoms, as well as increase overall feelings of self-esteem, health, social connection, and even joy!  Spending time in a natural environment seems to act almost like a "reset" button on our stressed-out minds and bodies, allowing time for our depleted mental resources to be renewed, through engaging with the kinds of stimuli that help the process.

Feelings of connection happen when our attention is drawn unconsciously towards something calming, interesting or beautiful, and when we experience positive emotional states like love, contentment, and awe. In this connected state, found in nature, we feel as though we have a fresh perspective on old problems or nagging worries, and can even feel as though we are renewed or reborn.

Amy Hale, Ph.D., is a Seattle-based writer and behavioral scientist. She studies the interconnection between personal well being and environmental health.

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