Why is it that simple environmental details like ambient lighting and coloring play such a big role in our mood?
Researchers at the University of Warwick pose questions like these and tackle them with tools from a variety of disciplines, ranging from genetics to architecture. One such investigator was the late Elizabeth Burton, who pioneered work in designing neighborhoods and other “built environments” as a professor with joint appointments at the university’s medical school and sustainable design department. Burton’s research focused on promoting well-being in populations with dementia which culminated in a series of guidelines for designing dementia-friendly neighborhoods.
Burton’s approach was adopted by faculty at MIT sponsored by an energy consulting group to study the built environments (schools, libraries, homes) of young students. These studies emphasized the importance of natural light over artificial lighting not just in a student’s ability to concentrate, but also in their body’s development. Initial studies found that students whose classrooms were naturally lit had healthier teeth, weight gain, and a stronger immune system. It has since become a serious architectural field of inquiry to design buildings which maximize natural light, and a biological field of inquiry to understand what specific pathways are being activated. Recent studies that light receptors within our eyes interact with nervous system pathways by lighting up nerve cells on the retina. Other labs have found that natural light exposure stimulates opioid receptors within our bodies and leads to an uptick in endorphin (feel good chemical) production. However, these studies are still a long way from understanding what is going on within our head that makes us feel better in a naturally lit setting.
These results do give a direction to manipulate our own built environments to maximize mental wellbeing. Getting natural light while living within the urban sprawl of the Bay Area, or any other major metropolitan area, can be a challenge. Research out of the University of Utah has provided some basic tips for maximizing natural light. They have gone so far as to break down information regarding what percent of your walls facing each compass direction should be covered by glass:
However, the high cost of living in many metropolitan areas makes vetting houses for natural light a luxury many housing seekers cannot afford. For example, in college towns like Berkeley simple studios in the basements of a relatively barebones apartment building can cost upwards of $2000 a month, and will have limited lighting of any sort (speaking from experience). Many people are forced into these unhealthy living situations out of necessity to stay close to work or school or due to the financial barriers to accessing better housing. But this barrier simply makes it more important for us to seek out environments that will have a positive impact on our bodies and minds. If it is not possible to live in a well-lit residence, one must take action to ensure regular natural light exposure. Simple changes in habit like 30 minute walks outside every few hours or visits to publicly accessible buildings like a mall can lead to a significant change in mood and fitness.
The last few decades of research into questions about our mood and our environment has yielded many more questions than initially posed, but one thing has repeatedly been proven true: exercise and exposure to natural light are crucial to proper body and brain function and development. For more information on how to maximize natural light in your life, check out this home decorating guide and a nifty hiking trail locator.
Read more about research from the University of Warwick here:
This post was written by Anyun Chatterjee. Please send any questions or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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