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Your environment is about more than just plants

Editorial opinion by Emily Feek

When we think about the environment, we tend to think about nature: the great outdoors. Our environment isn’t just plants, it’s everything around us. Our worldly possessions, the way we organize them, the layout of our rooms. 

The way we use our space and the conditions we live in have an impact on us, and yes, that includes the time we spend out in nature.

Mental health discussions often circle back to common themes like healthy eating habits, exercise and spending time with friends. 

The environments we spend time in should be discussed, too and it’s more complicated than just getting outside. Certainly, spending too much time indoors can be detrimental, but not all architecture is created equal. 

Take prison as an example. Prisoners and prison staff are known to struggle with mental health. Jo Nurse, et al. conducted a qualitative study with voluntary focus groups to explore why that is. The study found isolation and a lack of mental stimulation contributed to prisoners’ mental health struggles.

The study’s respondents agreed that activities like work or education, would be beneficial. Without stimulation or time spent around others, “extreme stress, anger and frustration” resulted, according to Nurse, et al. 

Small, confined spaces and a lack of sunlight and privacy are not the ideal environment for glowing mental health. While many of us aren’t confined to those factors, the isolation prisoners face is something we should consider when discussing the environment.

One easily-identified flaw in this argument is that many environmental factors in prisons are imposed on prisoners. Many of us are already living in different environments with plenty of space and sunlight. That doesn’t mean things like isolation can’t be self-imposed, or that awareness of our environment can’t benefit us. 

An article by Gary Evans published in “The Journal of Urban Health” discussed the way the built environment correlates directly and indirectly with our mental health. The correlation is significant, because humans spend as much as 90% of their lives indoors, according to Evans. 

Housing factors like the type of house, floor level and overall quality have all been linked to mental health, according to Evans, although the actual reason for the correlation is speculation. There is a “near consensus on an inverse relationship between housing quality and psychological distress,” Evans said. 

Our social environments are linked to our built environments, making this a much more complex issue. Perhaps one of the reasons that low quality housing is related to less positive mental health is because of social stigma, or any other slew of factors contributing to how a person came to be in that housing. There are a wealth of variables. 

Some elements are more straight-forward. Insufficient exposure to sunlight, which can stem from the built environment, is linked to negative effects like fatigue, and is a key component of seasonal affective disorder. 

The way we arrange the furniture in our environment even has an impact on us. Something you learn in communications classes is that the environment communicates with us; the noise, light, furniture placement and colors in a room all impact us. 

Institutions like psychiatric facilities are intentional with furniture arrangement; they set up chairs around tables at comfortable speaking distances to promote socialization, as well as giving patients individual space rather than bunk-style housing to get the same effect, according to Evans. 

We do the same thing in our homes. We arrange our spaces to make ourselves feel comfortable and at home. We choose what to keep on our dresser, on our shelves. There’s a lot of merit to what Marie Kondo has to say about clutter and how it affects us. 

The importance of minimizing clutter in our lives is also an element of feng shui. Feng shui is a Chinese folk art involving the arrangement of buildings and objects to maximize qi, or life force, according to an entry by Karla Lant in “Multicultural America: A Multimedia Encyclopedia.”

Feng shui was introduced to America as early as the 19th century, and many modern practitioners view the practice as well-suited to modern American life with all its clutter, according to Lant. It’s not that we shouldn’t have any belongings, it’s that we should be intentional about the significance of the objects around us. 

Feng shui provides one model for meaning and demonstrates how the idea that our environment impacts our well-being isn’t new. 

The way we use our space is important. We have an active relationship with the environment we live in, natural or otherwise. So if you’re feeling stagnant when you’re home in your apartment, don’t just get outside for a few. Shake it up, because our space does affect us.

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