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Where You Are Is How You Feel

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Source: Nathan DeFiesta/Unsplash

by Fazli Salim, research affiliate at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala.

Our environment is profoundly intertwined with us. From physical factors such as the built architecture of one’s home to shared public spaces, what’s around us gets embedded with how we feel subtly. Be it a road, workplace, city, or forest, we shape most of the environment around us, and without our realisation, it ends up shaping us.

The built environment around us significantly affects our emotions. It may shift from evoking negative to positive emotions within a few minutes. For instance, imagine navigating yourself through a dark parking space to a bright facility. Our elicited feelings shift from discomfort and anxiety in a dark place to feelings of comfort and calm in a well-lit area.

Previous research has highlighted that bright light and colours can be energising, improving mood and productivity, whereas the layout of a space can influence social interaction and communication. Although these are positive effects, the influence of the environment can vary in different settings. To illustrate, an individual is more likely to get into arguments if the temperature of their surroundings is too high, and when it is too low, it may lead to withdrawal of interactions. The physical spaces around us can elicit a range of emotions.

Research to investigate the influence of the built environment on individuals is not recent. In 1998, Professor Gary Evans and Janetta McCoy of Cornell University published a detailed study on the linkages of architecture and stress. With such clear consequences of our surroundings on stress levels, it is not surprising that we, knowingly or unknowingly, switch feelings as we switch between different environments in our everyday process while interacting with the environment.

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Source: Pxhere

The Inescapable Heterogeneity

The physical spaces we inhabit are heterogeneous. They can vary in aspects of urbanisation such as planned areas, modern infrastructure, and transportation systems; architecture concerning accessibility and aesthetics; public spaces in terms of recreation and social interaction; and housing with regards to basic amenities, i.e., electricity, running water, and more. With these factors in mind, there remains a gap in understanding how they may influence our emotions if we are in a country that is grappling with development compared to a developed nation.

In developed countries, environmental factors such as advanced and well-planned areas with modern infrastructure, maintained public spaces with parks, plazas, and community centres are easily accessible, whereas in developing countries such spaces may be almost non-existent or limited to posh areas of cities. Such benefits also get compromised due to prioritisation of economic development and weak policies impacting overall well-being. In addition, urban environments face several challenges in non-WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) countries. Less developed areas, more traditional and less functional architecture, fewer or poorly maintained public spaces, overcrowded housing, and dilapidated infrastructure — how these environmental factors impact people in developing countries has not been given enough attention.

Consider two things: First, we can never dissociate ourselves from the environment, and second, developing countries are scuffling to maintain a healthy environment. The population in developing countries faces poor environmental conditions beyond any individual’s control, and implications of their existing substandard conditions get dire. They are routinely exposed to emissions, traffic congestion, crumbling infrastructure, poorly maintained public or green spaces, and high noise levels due to ongoing concrete constructions. Even so, be it a developed or developing environment, positive effects remain excluded from the lower strata of society.

Given such dissimilarities in the environment across the world, it becomes crucial to explore how the environment may impact the feelings of an individual. Disparities exist when comparing a city like Geneva to New Delhi, or a house close to a vibrant environment compared to one ina ghetto with no basic amenities.

Our relationship with the environment is complex and transcends all frontiers of our existence. While the natural environment directs our affective and cognitive functioning, our choreographed cities often fail to create a stimulating environment. As obvious as challenges of environmental exposure may seem, the handicaps that vulnerable sections of society experience are colossal and remain primarily unaccounted for. “Environmental psychology matters” but it gets ignored in developing countries. Thus, to design a healthy environment, we must go to the microscopic level and may even apply Gandhi’s Talisman to beat the structural inequality in accessing a nourishing environment.

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