Shape your environment, shape your mind

One of the biggest con­trib­u­tors to our hap­pi­ness is some­thing we bare­ly pay atten­tion to: the voice inside our own heads.

As psy­chol­o­gist Ethan Kross describes in his new book Chat­ter, that voice is con­stant­ly ana­lyz­ing the sit­u­a­tions we’re in, reflect­ing on the past and future, and telling us who we are. While some­times friend­ly and optimistic—it’s OK, everything’s going to work out!—it can also be crit­i­cal and down­beat. Our inner voice can berate us for mis­takes or decide our life is ruined. It can rumi­nate on neg­a­tive emo­tions and expe­ri­ences, dredg­ing them up with­out any kind of con­struc­tive resolution.

Accord­ing to Kross, there are three main ways we can turn down the chat­ter in our heads: shift­ing our per­spec­tive so we’re not so immersed in our prob­lems, talk­ing with oth­ers to get sup­port, and chang­ing the envi­ron­ment around us.

The first two approach­es work in the moment of dis­tress: Kross offers tips on how to step back and gain some dis­tance, and then share our prob­lems with oth­ers. But chang­ing our envi­ron­ment is some­thing we can do proac­tive­ly, to make us less like­ly to rumi­nate in the first place.

We’re embed­ded in our phys­i­cal spaces, and dif­fer­ent fea­tures of those spaces acti­vate psy­cho­log­i­cal forces inside us, which affect how we think and feel,” writes Kross. “If we make smart choic­es about how we relate to our sur­round­ings, they can help us con­trol our inner voice.”

Here are three sug­ges­tions from Kross’s book to opti­mize your envi­ron­ment for a calmer mind.

1. Surround yourself with nature

Plen­ty of research sug­gests that nature makes us feel good and improves our health, too, whether we’re tak­ing a nature walk, liv­ing in areas with more green space, or just look­ing at trees.

Nature also seems to help buffer against the stress we expe­ri­ence in life. For exam­ple, one study in the U.K. found that being exposed to green spaces pro­tect­ed peo­ple from the harm­ful effects of pover­ty on their health. In anoth­er study, poor res­i­dents in urban pub­lic hous­ing felt that the obsta­cles in their life were less severe and more solv­able when their apart­ment looked out onto green­ery, rather than a cityscape.

Why is nature so sooth­ing? A 2015 study pro­vides a clue. When par­tic­i­pants spent 90 min­utes walk­ing through grass­lands, they report­ed rumi­nat­ing less than those who walked through busy city streets. Not only that, but their brain scans showed less activ­i­ty in net­works that sup­port rumi­na­tion. Being around nature may actu­al­ly influ­ence our habit­u­al thought patterns.

Even if you don’t have many trees on your street, this research is still rel­e­vant. In fact, oth­er stud­ies sug­gest that you can get some of the atten­tion-improv­ing and stress-reduc­ing ben­e­fits of nature just by look­ing at nature pho­tos or lis­ten­ing to birds and rain—and plants help, too.

2. Create opportunities for awe

Being in nature, in the face of tall trees or breath­tak­ing views, we often expe­ri­ence a sense of awe: the feel­ing of being in the pres­ence of some­thing vast that chal­lenges our under­stand­ing of the world.

But nature isn’t the only thing that can evoke awe, Kross explains. We can also feel awe when we read poet­ry or lis­ten to music, watch great ath­let­ic feats or our tod­dlers’ mem­o­rable firsts.

Awe is con­sid­ered a self-tran­scen­dent emo­tion in that it allows peo­ple to think and feel beyond their own needs and wants,” Kross writes. “The oper­a­tive pow­er of awe is its abil­i­ty to make us feel small­er, nudg­ing us to cede con­trol of our inner voice to a greater grandeur.”

This is reflect­ed in the brain: When we feel awe, we show less activ­i­ty in brain areas involved with self-focus and mind-wan­der­ing. Awe almost auto­mat­i­cal­ly makes our prob­lems feel small­er and gives us that broad­er per­spec­tive, with­out us hav­ing to engage direct­ly with the prob­lems at all. For exam­ple, one study that took vol­un­teers on a riv­er-raft­ing trip found that the more they expe­ri­enced awe, the bet­ter the improve­ments in their stress, post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, hap­pi­ness, and sense of belonging.

So, what does an awe-inspir­ing envi­ron­ment look like? It’s prob­a­bly dif­fer­ent for every­one, but it might mean putting up art or pho­tographs on your walls, play­ing music that trans­ports you, or being sure to unplug from your tech­nol­o­gy to notice the beau­ty in the peo­ple around you.

3. Clear the clutter

When our thoughts and feel­ings seem out of con­trol, one way we can get a grip is to exert a sense of con­trol over our environment—by decluttering.

See­ing order in the world is com­fort­ing because it makes life eas­i­er to nav­i­gate and more pre­dictable,” Kross writes. Even just read­ing about how the world is an order­ly place can make us less anx­ious, one study suggests.

There’s also evi­dence that when we feel out of control—when we think about a sit­u­a­tion where we were help­less, or when we’re exposed to loud nois­es we can’t turn down—we’re more drawn to visu­al pat­terns and struc­tured images, as we try to impose order on our exter­nal world.

Declut­ter­ing might also just make us hap­py. Accord­ing to a new study, peo­ple who have a more pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence of the clut­ter in their home—who are less ashamed, upset, or incon­ve­nienced by their clutter—tend to expe­ri­ence more pos­i­tive emo­tions, bet­ter rela­tion­ships, and more mean­ing in life.

Like the oth­er two strate­gies, declut­ter­ing can be done proac­tive­ly, but it may also soothe you in a moment of stress—as any­one who’s ever done any “pro­cras­ti-clean­ing” knows.

Of course, even with the most ver­dant, awe-inspir­ing, Marie Kondo’d home, we won’t be able to avoid rumi­na­tion entire­ly, and that’s where Kross’s oth­er strate­gies come in. His book ends with a help­ful list of 26 tools to pull out when you start to feel over­whelmed by repet­i­tive neg­a­tive think­ing. And his own per­son­al expe­ri­ences, shared through­out the book, remind us that even a researcher with exper­tise on the top­ic isn’t immune to freak­ing out every now and then.

While the voice in our heads may seem like our ene­my some­times, there are lots of ways we can turn that con­ver­sa­tion in a pro­duc­tive direction.

Kira M. New­man is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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