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Break Out the Candles!

Applying environmental psych research can improve holiday gatherings.

It’s the time of year when family members who really don’t have much in common gather together, anyway. They do this even though last year’s meet up really didn’t go as well as desired. Some things we’re just too eternally optimistic to learn, it seems.

Design can’t magically solve all of the issues at your family events—maybe there’s nothing that can be done about Uncle Maury besides ostracism—but often it can help.

The single most important thing you can do to encourage positive conversations, design-wise, is to (safely) break out the candles and/or start a fire in your fireplace. And turn off the artificial lights. Research consistently shows that the dim-ish warm light that results when you light candles and fireplaces increases the likelihood that people’ll be in a relaxed positive mood and get along well with each other. No one’s mood (at least no one who you want to associate with’s mood) is enhanced by a burning home, so be safe with candles and fireplaces.

The people in your home will have different personalities, and recognizing those personalities in the way that seats are arranged, and what sorts of seats are even provided, is a good idea. Extraverts pack their homes with sofas, while introverts prefer single person seats, so make sure that both are available. Also, everyone will participate in some conversations and only a few in others, so a variety of seating areas is a good idea. Some seats that people can move, so that they can establish personal space zones the size they like, is also a good idea.

Make sure there are side tables around those seats so everyone can establish their own territory by putting their drink, etc., on them. Territories sound primitive and irrelevant to our lives today, but they’re not—we’re only really comfortable and relaxed when we’re in a space that clearly belongs to us. Privacy may seem unimportant when you’re intentionally sharing space, but we all need it when desired. So make sure that there are places inside your home, outside, or nearby where people can slip away to be by themselves and think about their lives. When we can’t have “private time” our brain performance degrades. People will establish private spaces anyway, so you might as well plan some private place options in. If the only spaces in your home where people can have privacy are the bathrooms, the lines outside your rest rooms will get pretty long!

So, invite your family to spend time with you over the holidays. Break out the candles and light a fire in your fireplace—and remember that your guests have different personalities, but share fundamental human needs, for territories and privacy, for example.

More from Sally Augustin Ph.D.
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