Design for Relaxing

What's in view can relax us, or not.

Posted Jun 10, 2015

It’s summer and many of us have resolved to take a break and decompress. We’ve vowed “to get away from it all” in some exotic location or in a far corner of our own backyard. How can the design of the places where we retreat help us relax?

Cognitive scientists have repeatedly found that looking at natural landscapes, water, fish tanks, and fires (as long as they’re clearly managed and not dangerous) are all great stress-busters.

The natural areas that do the most for us stress-reduction-wise, whether we’re looking at or visiting them, feature open, meadow-like areas interspersed with clumps of a few trees.They’re reminiscent of less densely wooded sections of deciduous forests, near breaks in the tree canopy. Being in or seeing intense, jungle-like environments add to our stress levels. When we’re in or looking at jungle-scapes, it’s too hard for us to anticipate nearby action—a primordial part of our brain is still concerned that something that wants to eat us could jump out from a hiding place screened from view by dense plants. As you’re landscaping your home or picking a spot to sit and relax, create or find a seat near a few plants and trees where you have a good view of what’s close by.

Seeing gently moving water, reminiscent of a flowing brook, helps us battle stress levels as does looking at water moving rhythmically, as waves do. Water that brings storms to mind makes us feel even more tense.

When creating a fish tank or pond, it’s best to use a few varieties of fish. Including only one type makes watching the tank relatively uninteresting and not as effective at cutting stress levels.

Looking at a well-managed fire, of the sort that’s apt to be found in a backyard fire pit or fireplace, also helps us decompress. Bejan, from Duke, has just released a study reporting that fires that burn well have fuel positioned in a pile that's as tall as it is wide. Think of an equilateral triangle in cross-section and pile what you’d like to burn accordingly. Since we want fires we're watching to burn efficiently and effectively, Bejan’s research should put an end to the random-pile-of-sticks approach to recreational fire building.

Natural areas, water, fish tanks/ponds, and planned/contained fires can help us relax—don’t miss your opportunity to put them to work so you can stay calm and refreshed this summer.