The Power of Architecture: How the World Around You Shapes Your Thoughts and Actions

In 1952, polio killed more children in America than any other communicable disease. Nearly 58,000 people were infected that year. The situation was on the verge of becoming an epidemic and the country desperately needed a vaccine.

In a small laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, a young researcher named Jonas Salk was working tirelessly to find a cure. (Years later, author Dennis Denenberg would write, “Salk worked sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, for years.”)

Despite all his effort, Salk was stuck. His quest for a polio vaccine was meeting a dead end at every turn. Eventually, he decided that he needed a break. Salk left the laboratory and retreated to the quiet hills of central Italy where he stayed at a 13th-century Franciscan monastery known as the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi.

The basilica could not have been more different than the lab. The architecture was a beautiful combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles. White-washed brick covered the expansive exterior and dozens of semi-circular arches surrounded the plazas between buildings. Inside the church, the walls were covered with stunning fresco paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries and natural light poured in from tall windows.

It was in this space that Jonas Salk would have the breakthrough discovery that led to the polio vaccine. Years later, he would say…

“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct.”
-Jonas Salk

Today, the discovery that Salk made in that Italian monastery has impacted millions. Polio has been eradicated from nearly every nation in the world. In 2012, just 223 cases were reported globally.

Did inspiration just happen to strike Salk while he was at the monastery? Or was he right in assuming that the environment impacted his thinking?

And perhaps more importantly, what does science say about the connection between our environment and our thoughts and actions? And how can we use this information to live better lives?

basilica san francesco d'assisi
Columns and arches at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. (Image by Konrad Glogowski.)

The Link Between Brains and Buildings

Researchers have discovered a variety of ways that the buildings we live, work, and play in drive our behavior and our actions. The way we react and respond is often tied to the environment that we find ourselves in.

For example, it has long been known that schools with more natural light provide a better learning environment for students and test scores often go up as a result. (Natural light and natural air are known to stimulate productivity in the workplace as well.)

Additionally, buildings with natural elements built into them help reduce stress and calm us down (think of trees inside a mall or a garden in a lobby). Spaces with high ceilings and large rooms promote more expansive and creative thinking.

So what does this link between design and behavior mean for you and me?

Change Your Environment, Change Your Behavior

Researchers have shown that any habit you have — good or bad — is often associated with some type of trigger or cue. Recent studies (like this one) have shown that these cues often come from your environment.

This is important because most of us live in the same home, go to the same office, and eat in the same rooms day after day. And that means you are constantly surrounded by the same environmental triggers and cues.

If your behavior is often shaped by your environment and you keep working, playing, and living in the same environment, then it’s no wonder that it can be difficult to build new habits. (The research supports this. Studies show that it is easier to change your behavior and build new habits when you change your environment.)

If you’re struggling to think creatively, then going to a wide open space or moving to a room with more natural light and fresh air might help you solve the problem. (Like it seemingly did for Jonas Salk.)

Meanwhile, if you need to focus and complete a task, research shows that it’s more beneficial to work in a smaller, more confined room with a lower ceiling (without making yourself feel claustrophobic, of course).

And perhaps most important, simply moving to a new physical space — whether it’s a different room or halfway around the world — will change the cues that you encounter and thus your thoughts and behaviors.

Quite literally, a new environment leads to new ideas.

Putting This Into Practice

In the future, I hope that architects and designers will use the connection between design and behavior to build hospitals where patients heal faster, schools where children learn better, and homes where people live happier.

That said, you can start making changes right now. You don’t have to be a victim of your environment. You can also be the architect of it. Here’s my simple 2-step prescription for altering your environment so that you can stick with good habits and break bad habits:

  1. To stick with a good habit, reduce the number of steps required to perform the behavior.
  2. To break a bad habit, increase the number of steps required to perform the behavior.

Here are some examples…

  • Want to watch less TV? Unplug it and put it in a closet. If you really want to watch a show, then you can take it out and plug it back in.
  • Want to drink more water? Fill up a few water bottles and place them around the house so that a healthy drink is always close by.
  • Want to start a business? Join a co-working space where you’re surrounded by dozens of other business owners.

These are just a few examples, but the point is that shifting your behavior is much easier when you shift to the right environment. Stanford professor BJ Fogg refers to this approach as “designing for laziness.” In other words, change your environment so that your default or “lazy” decision is a better one.

By designing your environment to encourage the good behaviors and prevent the bad behaviors, you make it far more likely that you’ll stick to long-term change. Your actions today are often a response the environmental cues that surround you. If you want to change your behavior, then you have to change those cues.

Click here to leave a comment.

Sources
  1. Utopias and Architecture By Nathaniel Coleman
  2. Historic Cities and Sacred Sites: Cultural Roots for Urban Futures
  3. Jonas Salk on Wikipedia
  4. Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture by John P. Eberhard
  5. This article explained a variety of ways that design impacts our behavior.

52 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for the time you take to write such uplifting, life inspiring article.I have such a busy life that it has been difficult to read all your articles.To be honest I have not read them for a while.It is still in my mailbox though. I am happy that this Good Friday morning I have free time to read this one.

    • I share the same situation with you. I just have learnt about this guy recently and really got impressed. He is very passionate and inspirational.

      I should spend more time on this, at least just once a week.

  2. Dear James,

    Thanks yet again for another brilliant article. I can definitely relate to this article because I have seen the effects myself of what a different environment can do.

    For example, two days ago (I work in a warehouse with no windows), the sun was out and the skies were clear blue, so my boss decided to open up both warehouse shutter doors. Just looking at the beautiful clear sky really cheered me up, and boosted my productivity quite substantially.

    Also, I have read in a magazine called men’s health, that listening to your favourite songs can boosts your motivation by as much as 10%! Again, I can personally vouch for this, because when I am in the gym and listening to my own music, I seem to work harder, than if I do without.

    It’s also a great help to forming positive habits, if you try to surround yourself with positive thinking people. This alone can be very beneficial to your well being as a whole. Because we are social pack animals by nature, we crave social interaction, so I would say to anyone, try to meet as many people from all walks of life to learn and get the most out of life.

    Yours respectfully,

    Jordan

  3. James,

    Great article. And straight to the point. In my days as a design engineer these techniques worked wonderfully!

  4. James,

    I think this explains why I was very productive in my efforts to write a screenplay while I was doing a lot of air travel. I believe the limited space on a jet and limited time elements really inspired me to be more creative while flying short flights every week for a few months. Also, I was flying on small jets that someone tall like me could not stand up straight.

    Unfortunately, after I completed that assignment, I have not felt creative enough to complete the project whenever I picked up my notebook to try writing again! I think if I can replicate the environment, I will hopefully have more success and start completing the screenplay.

    Thanks for the tip!

  5. Of the blogs I follow, there are very few which consistently publish two good articles a week. Yours certainly sets a high standard.

    I had not read of Dr. Salk’s intuitive experience before, thank you for enlightening us.

    When I am stuck for inspiration I get on my horse and go for a ride around the fields (weather permitting), take my dog for a walk or just cut wood.

    Being outside and away from a computer works for me.

  6. Love it. It’s funny because I did exactly what the last paragraph says earlier this week! I wanted to stop using Facebook so much so I deleted the app from my phone. Little did I know I would still use it when I really needed to contact somebody, but I cut down on useless time spent! Awesome article.

  7. Lovely article, and one with a premise that I very much agree with. Four years ago I moved from the harsh environment of the prairies to beautiful Vancouver Island. While I have always been committed to getting outside and walking and biking as much as possible, it’s very hard to do when the windchill is -40. Since I’ve been here, my habit of walking and/or biking every day has become a pleasure rather than a chore and much easier to stick to. The resultant lift to my spirits is incalculable.

  8. Very relevant insights James. Thank you. Fact is, we are multi-sensory animals. As much as we may not be aware of our environment and how we are responding to it, we are influenced by it very much. As a creative copy writer, I will often head for a completely new locale with wifi and start my mind map plan. The new sights, sounds, aromas, surfaces and flavors of coffee or tea are always excellent triggers to get me going. It works every time….and have fun too!!!

  9. This is great, and so relevant to me right now as I contemplate pulling the rip cord on my current life, living situation, etc. Good stuff. Thanks for doing what you do, James Clear.

  10. Thank you once again James! Your historical references, mixed with today’s application, brings it all together once again.

  11. “The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past.”

    This speaks volumes to me. At one time in my life a manager of mine told me — “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” I had no idea at the time what he meant. Now I know it is an old quote, yet others live by it.

    Today I look at things differently so I may broaden my horizons. Whatever that means.

    Fritz

  12. This article is gold!

    There are so many bloggers writing about everything and anything, but I can only follow yours consistently. Whatever you are doing is working. Keep it up!

  13. “Designing for laziness” is such a great idea. I really like your two-step process, James.

    I’ve been impacted by my working environment to a dramatic degree. For three years I worked from a patio off my home in Costa Rica, and I did some fantastic work.

    For the last six months, I have been back in the states, and my home office is a laundry room. It’s more like a closet, really, with a laundry room stuffed into it, and me on a TV tray.

    So I go to Starbucks every chance I can get. There is a demonstrable difference in my work output when I am in an open, airy space.

  14. I have read your blogs for a long time and they are all wonderful. However, this one was perfect timing for me personally – so I am very grateful for it.

    I am writing this as I sit by a big sunny window – perhaps that was the inspiration I needed – because this is my first comment!

    Thanks again James for the insight.

    Bridget

  15. I have gained such value from your work, James Clear. Thank you.

    I pass your posts on regularly to various clients, with a note that says — James Clear is a clear thinker, what do you get from this post?

  16. I have been reading your articles for a while-but this is the first I felt I needed to comment on. I have been studying Feng Shui for the past year and it is exactly what you are describing. Everything is energy. What’s closest to you has the most impact on you.

    What is going on in your life is a direct reflection of what is going on in your mind, body, and environment.

    Thank you for the article — I wish more understood this concept. Maybe they will now.

  17. Hi James hope your well

    My name is Benjamin Naylor and I’m a strength and conditioning coach from Oxfordshire in the UK. This article is defiantly one of the most interesting and it’s also very practical. This article has made me think very deeply and I know I have to change my environment to become successful.

    It would be great to have you come to the UK to do a workshop or even do a webinar! It would be great to learn from you! Hopefully you will come over one day?

  18. I thoroughly agree with your thoughts on buildings and our environment. A few years ago I knew the apartment I had bought to live in with my boys was very bad for their growth, so I sold it and asked them to find somewhere to live. I rented, they rented, and to date we are exploring each of us the best way to live individually. This has allowed us to come together more freely and with less anxt, as they used to spend far too much time in messy bedrooms without much natural light, playing games on the computer and sleeping in. Now each of us has a great space (we’ve all moved twice) to live, the boys are less messy (but not super clean :-) ) and we are each exploring what it takes to make ourselves more comfortable in our own skin.
    Buildings, just like relationships, can outlast their usefulness. For everyone’s sake, it is definitely better in some instances to change address, in order to grow and develop as a human being.

  19. I don’t know how I was lucky enough to find your blog. Just thankful that I did.

    We have an area on side of our house that I call my grotto. There is a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, a water feature and on the block wall, the Prayer of St Francis made out of ceramic tile. I definitely will have even more appreciation for this lovely space now! It will be my new “go to” place for inspiration.

    Than you James for sharing your insight. I am grateful for you.

    Charlotte

  20. Hi James,

    As you have very rightly pointed out that we have to consciously find our space where our thoughts will flower.

    Cheers.

  21. Thanks for sharing James. Although I knew all of this, but it was hidden in some corner. You made me remember. Now I’ll try to apply it as much as I can.

  22. Thanks James. I’m finding your information inspiring. I moved my computer to a different part of the house and got different inspiration.

    Hugs

  23. Dear James,

    Thanks for the great article. Like all your articles this one is short, simple to understand but not shallow. More importantly eminently implementable.

    Keep it up.

    Sridhar

  24. Dear James

    I had just read your article about goals and systems. I had started a new business and just written foreword and it is about business system making one successful.

    I thought to see what all you have written and was surprised to see this article. Because I’ve been very particular about this area. In fact I’ve a saying “at first you make your environment, then your environment makes you.”

    I think I’ll read a bit more we seem to meet in our ideas.

    Best Regards.

  25. Thank you James for your concise, practical, inspiring and applicable posts. I appreciate your insights into human behavior and the time involved to create a meaningful post. You are one of my favorite coaches. I save a lot of your posts and print them off to add to my library of ideas to share when I have a team to help.

    ~SUPERB~

  26. James —

    Will add my name to the list of people saying thanks. But I did want to add some additional information which you may find of interest.

    Back in the 1970’s an architect and city planner by the name of Oscar Newman discussed about how urban landscape could affect behavior. Google “defensible space” to learn more. Very interesting discussion on design not only affects individual behavior but also social (or in some cases anti-social) behaviour.

    Michael

  27. Brilliant James.

    I have only being following 2 weeks from Malaysia, and I am enthralled by your pieces. Not just the motivation, but the facts… lots of research I presumed.

    Thanks.

  28. Thank you James for this great article. As your other articles it is short ans simple. Love to read your articles and it is a real pleasure to follow your blog.

  29. Dear James,

    Wonderful article as usual. I have personally tried and tested the above, including removing all aerated waters from my house, when I wanted to reduce having sodas and aerated waters. Realised that after some time, the craving stopped entirely.

    :)

    Take Care,
    Stay inspired…
    Esther

  30. Fantastic article!

    Very inspiring. We’re now incorporating some of these ideas in our plans to build some shared “focus desks” within our large office which has high ceilings and expansive interior.

    It makes so much sense but we would never have thought about putting a low ceiling on these to enhance focus.

    Will let you know how it goes!

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