Harnessing the Power of Changing (or Not)

Familiar places and things can boost our mood.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

As each new season begins, we resolve to improve our lives and the places where we live. Neuroscience research makes it clear: Planning to make too many changes is destined not to work out well. Predictable can be a positive.

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. You might consider changing the upholstery on the seats in that nook. The physical changes won’t eliminate that negative experience, but, ultimately, a design modification will weaken links that bring it quite as forcefully top-of-mind.

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 path in beautiful, peaceful gardens boosts our mood.

Research also shows that comfort food can help people feel less lonely — a valuable insight if you need to spend time alone. Eating comfort foods makes people think about relationships, and people who have positive associations with relationships then feel less lonely. Since there are such strong associations between scents and eating experiences, it seems reasonable to extend these findings to smells associated with comfort foods. So dig out that vanilla-scented candle!

A bonus from being in a familiar sort of environment: When the world around us is relatively familiar, odds are we’ll be in a more trusting mood. 

The familiar can support a wonderful future.