We have all noticed the impact that walking into a beautiful garden-with its lushness, fragrance, color array, bird sounds, butterflies, dynamism, and vitality-has on our sense of well-being. Likewise, we can all recall entering a building that prompted us to look for an immediate way out, given its lack of fresh air, monotony of tones, stale smells, haphazardness, noise, and low energy. Upon entering any setting our senses immediately send us direct feedback on all levels. The environment can set the tone of our emotions-whether we feel comfortable or tense, excited or lethargic, healthy or claustrophobic, friendly or stiff, involved or aloof-and therefore it conditions us in many ways of which we may not even be aware. This chapter is about understanding what a quality environment means to us, and how to create one that will promote a healthy lifestyle.
Given human differences and the diverse nature of the world around us, it cannot be assumed that everyone agrees on what constitutes a quality environment. Rather than trying to detail specific objects or a specific design that you should include in your workplace, for example, this chapter is all about general guidelines to be aware of when designing your own quality environment. The notion of taking the time to reflect on your present environment and whether it is conducive to a healthy lifestyle is the key to this component of HELP.
Just as our mind and body are interconnected, so too does the environment affect our overall health. We all have psychological reactions to colors and diversity, as well as purely physiological reactions to air quality, smells, and sounds. Unfortunately, once we become accustomed to certain surroundings, the registering of these sense stimuli seems to get bypassed through familiarity, even though their counterproductive effects can still be prominent. The first stage of creating a healthy environment is awareness. As with other components of HELP, before we can alter the factors contributing to a lack of well-being, we must first become aware of what they are.
Begin by reflecting on where the bulk of your time is being spent during your typical day. This may include both workplace and home, or specific rooms in these areas where you mainly spend your time. Go to these places and take time just to be with your breathing for a moment. Take a deep full breath and follow this with a relaxed prolonged exhalation. Repeat this several times with your eyes gently closed. Then open your eyes and identify the sense stimuli coming into the body as you look around the room. Become aware of smells, air quality and freshness, colors, sounds, textures, temperature, light, and shapes, and ask yourself whether the environment:
The answers to all of these questions will allow you to tune into the concept of a quality environment. Look around, carefully walking into and out of the rooms. Be honest with yourself. Encourage others who visit or use these areas to go over these questions and give you feedback. Jot down these responses and ideas in your journal. Remember that as you change, as the seasons change, as the world changes around you, your environment can change also. This exercise can be repeated regularly to allow you to enhance your environment as your awareness grows.
The next step is to attune to your specific tastes and inclinations. Sit down in a comfortable and quiet space, close your eyes, and ask yourself: if you could incorporate anything at all into your environment, what would it look like? Try to be in tune with your own spirit of harmony and balance, and let go of what is fashionable or things that other people may expect. At this stage open your eyes, take out your journal and allow yourself to sketch these objects as they appear in the mind’s eye. Be as specific as possible when it comes to the details. This will help to guide you when you compare your actual living and working spaces with what your inner promptings suggest.
If you have thoughtfully considered the previous exercises and questions, you are well on the way to creating a quality environment that will improve your overall health. By identifying factors that are conducive to a quality environment, as well as those that are impediments to it, you have made an immediate place to begin. Now try as much as possible to incorporate your ideal environment into your surroundings. You may add objects that are symbolic of this ideal environment-whether they be furniture, works of art, or photographs–or natural items such as flowers, plants, stones, or seashells that will allow you to connect with the outdoors even when you must be inside. Take time to create that special environment right from the start. Our tendency is not to bother addressing this issue once we have become accustomed to our present environment. Evaluate your environment on a regular basis, allowing your creative nature to flow forth with improvements and variety.
Remember the importance of the following factors, as it is estimated that most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors.
Once you have become aware of your specific inclinations and tastes, devote attention to some of the primary keys for creating a quality environment. Perhaps the most important is light. The results of numerous studies have emphasized the impact of light and color on our health. Some have even gone as far as saying that light is the second most important environmental input in controlling the functions of the body, surpassed only by food.
Wherever possible, try to reduce your dependence on artificial light and increase the flow of natural light. Evaluate how much natural light is presently flowing into the environment in which you spend the most time during daylight hours. Is there any way to increase this natural light through rearranging or redesigning the area?
Color is directly associated with light. Choose colors that are agreeable to you. Learn about the properties of different colors; for example, red is stimulating, exciting, and warm, while blue tends to be relaxing, gentle, and calming. Choose colors to complement the activity that will be taking place in the specific area. Have some contrasting colors to provide a sense of variety and diversity, as it is important that colors balance one another.
Attune to sounds and noise, and try whenever possible to reduce those that are not conducive to health, such as traffic, machinery, appliances, and television. At the same time, try to be sensitive to sounds that will promote well-being, including nature sounds of birds, gentle wind chimes, and pleasant music. Take a moment to close your eyes and filter through all the sounds that come into your awareness. Identify sounds which promote ease, and those which encourage stress and anxiety.
Look at options to insulate or rearrange your environment to reduce noise, and at the same time enhance those sounds which you find healing and pleasant. If you are far from the healing sounds of the countryside, you may find audio tapes of nature sounds soothing.
Next, become aware of the air flow in your environment. Air is a critical element in our overall health and well-being. Never assume that your interior environment has been designed with optimal air quality in mind. Whenever possible check into the following areas to ensure air quality:
While a great deal of attention has been focused on reducing air pollution outside it is even more critical to be aware of internal air quality.
As so much time is spent in buildings and cars, it is easy to lose the healing benefits of nature. Remember the importance of plants and items from nature to help you to:
This is not to mention the healing effects of looking after plants and watching them grow through your care and nurturing. By bringing nature into your indoor environment, you will be reminded of the balance and rhythm that nature represents.
Remember that the environment is also a product of the company you keep. The influence of the moods, attitudes, and habits of the people with whom you associate is a very significant part of environmental awareness. While it is sometimes neither desirable nor possible to surround yourself only with people who will bring out the best in you, you should be aware of the influence they have.
Seek out environments that will bring you in contact with people who can help reinforce your desire for health enhancement. Balance your social environments in order to be able to meet your goals. Choose environments that will allow you to make new friends with whom you can share your approach to life. If you are trying to let go of unhealthy habits, remember the power of being in environments where you can be with people who will assist you in this process.
When you find yourself in a difficult physical environment, try to create a pleasant atmosphere with others who are in it to help transform your thoughts and feelings. Through sharing friendship, compassion, joy, humor, and laughter, even the most difficult environments can be transformed.
By allowing yourself the time and space to evaluate and change your environment, you will find that your productivity increases, your sense of peace and comfort, and your overall health and well-being improve. When looking at your workplace, identify factors that may be detrimental to your health and remedy them as much as possible. The areas mentioned previously regarding light, colors, sounds, air quality, and nature are as important in your workplace as anywhere else-or perhaps more important-although not so easily adjusted. Take time to look at your workplace from this perspective. Improve what you can in the area by applying the questions at the start of this chapter.
Be aware that modem society has affected the routine of our daily lives. Modem technology finds us sitting down a great deal more, working with machines, computers, and generally being physically inactive. Adjust for these factors by fine-tuning your work environment and making it a quality one. Special furniture and keyboards, as well as professional advice on workplace design, are available in the growing field of ergonomics. Take the time to examine your workplace with an eye toward health enhancement.
Do you spend a great deal of time sitting? Is your chair conducive to good posture, given its height, design, and closeness to your desk? Things to look for in a good chair include:
If you spend a great deal of time driving, adjust your seat in a way that promotes circulation and good posture, in addition to providing comfort. The knees can be bent slightly, and a small lumbar pillow for your lower back may be helpful. Always make sure to remove things from back pockets, such as your wallet, which may not be uncomfortable, but may cause a misalignment with prolonged sitting.
Remember the importance of stretching the eyes as well as the other parts of the body. Eyestrain is a significant problem associated with our modem lifestyle. Computer screens combined with poor lighting and seating pose a formidable threat in our indoor environments.
Some simple tips to reduce eyestrain are to:
In addition, take time to do some eye exercises daily to strengthen the eye muscles and tone the optic nerves. These can include vertical, horizontal and full circular movements.
There are many excellent stretches for the rest of the body which can be done in confined spaces. Some of these can be taken from the warm-up section in Chapter 2. Other stretches can be taken from the yoga stretching postures illustrated in Chapter 3. Many can be done in your own office chair. Ensure that you are taking the time to stretch the body fully, and place reminders in your environment to do this, along with your positive affirmations. There are a range of books on stretching, and even ones specifically for the office, listed in the Further Reading section. Choose stretches that will allow you to improve your environmental comfort and health, while meeting your space and workplace constraints.
It may not be fully possible for some of you to create quality environments at home and in the workplace if you do not have control over aspects of these spaces. It is essential therefore to schedule into your diary time when you can compensate for the things which are missing or those which you cannot change. Begin by making a list of the things in your ideal environment that it is not possible to have in your actual environment. After examining the list, choose to spend as much of your free time as possible in environments that will allow you to remedy these factors. (This may seem so obvious that it should go without saying, but given the fast tempo of life today, many people are not even aware of the daily quality of environmental inputs in their lives.) For example, if you cannot redesign your office space or home to incorporate nature, ensure that during your breaks and mealtimes you take a walk, or sit in a park or garden. During weekends and holidays, choose destinations for the balance they will bring into your life, and to compensate for the environmental limitations you are faced with at most times.
Write down in your journal the aspects of your environment that you would like to change but are unable to do anything about. Review this list whenever possible, and ask these questions periodically:
In light of this information, is it time to re-examine your priorities and perhaps move the quality of your environment higher up on the list? If it is not possible to change your environment significantly at this stage, or your priorities, at least incorporate the ideal quality inputs that are missing into your guided imagery. Remember, your body responds to what is happening in your mind as though it were real. If physical change is impossible, the mind is an excellent place in which to begin creating a quality environment.
Birren, Faber. Light, Color and Environment, Van Reinhold, New York, 1982.
Friedeberger, Julie. Office Yoga, Thorsons, London, 1991.
Mollison, Bill & Holmgren, D. Permaculture One, Corgi, Bantam, Melbourne, 1978.
Mollison, Bill. Permaculture Two, Tagari, Hobart, Tasmania, 1979.
Venolia, Carol. Healing Environments, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA, 1988.
Wurtman, RJ. “Biological Consideration in Lighting Environments”, Progressive Architecture, September 1976, 79-81.
Zamm, Alfred V. Why Your House May Endanger Your Health, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1980.