Prime Your Environment

This past weekend I spent a lot of time outdoors with my family, hiking at Starved Rock. The positive impact of sunshine, nature, and fresh air on myself and my family, has really given me pause to think about how our environments impact our mood, emotions, energy levels and general feelings of life satisfaction. 

It is undeniable that we are impacted by our environments, whether we are conscious of it in the moment or not. An extreme (negative) case of this would be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where a person experiences symptoms of depression that are triggered by the change in season, primarily the loss of sunlight. Obviously not everyone responds to sunlight in this way or is impacted in such an extreme manner, but we are all affected by what surrounds us: lights, sounds, colors, objects, people etc… We have all experienced walking into an environment and either being immediately settled down by its soothing music and atmosphere (think spa) or revved up by the loudness and commotion (think rock concert).  We have all had the experience of feeling one way and then entering a new environment and feeling completely different, whether for better or worse.

The good news about this is that when we are conscious of our environment and its effect upon us, then it becomes another potential entry point for happiness, positive mood and overall satisfaction.  If we are thoughtful about how we create our environments, we can create ones that uplift us, inspire us, or bring us peace. It is really up to you.

Behavioral psychologists refer to this as priming. By putting key objects (sights, sounds, colors, etc…) into our environment we can trigger positive associations in our brains that lead to positive emotions. For example, putting up pictures of your fabulous vacation with loved ones is likely to encourage that same feeling of happiness and joy; while posting motivational quotes or poems has the opportunity to inspire you all over again and keep you focused on your goals.

Here are some tips for cultivating your environment:

1.    Think about the place in your life that you need the most encouragement or positive influence right now. If it’s at work, put up pictures of your family or someone that inspires you or makes you feel good about yourself, play music or put a plant on your desk. If it’s at home, try putting a reminder for yourself on your bathroom mirror or on the refrigerator door like a quote that is meaningful to you and how you want to be in the world.

2.    Use your senses. Which one of your senses really speaks to you? We all have a tendency to have a preference. If its sound, then put music or other sounds into your environment that create the right mood for you. If its sight, think about pictures, art, colors. Is it smell? Try candles, incense, or essential oils. Use different sights, sounds, and smells to produce different moods.

3.    Try bringing nature into your life. Nature is very soothing, but can also be energizing and uplifting. It allows us to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. Get a plant, open the windows, or walk outside in the fresh air. If I’m desperate for nature and can’t get to it, I put on the Nature Music Channel on Pandora.

4.    I love quotes and inspirational poems. Post them where you can see them and where you will be most reminded of what it means to you. Here is one of my favorites by Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

“Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

5.    Create a portfolio. Is there an emotion that you are really trying to build on? Perhaps inspiration, peace, joy, contentment, or gratitude? Choose one that you would like to cultivate in your life and then make a portfolio for it. Grab a folder or a binder. Feel free to be creative and decorate it. Now collect items to put in it that trigger that emotion that you are trying to cultivate. You can include lyrics to a song, pictures, photos, art work, cut out images from magazines, write a story real or imagined that triggers these emotions for you. Make a collage. This is your project. There is no wrong way to do it and you can always keep adding to it. Once it’s created, make a ritual of looking through it. Sure you can look through it anytime you need or want to, but make a conscious choice to look through it daily or weekly (not just when you think you need it) if you really want to cultivate an emotion. The more often, and with intention, the better. And feel free to make new ones as you become ready to move on to a new cultivation.

6.    Lastly, habituation is always a factor to consider. What is habituation? You know how you hung that new painting in your home and you stopped and looked at it every day and admired it? Now fast-forward 10 years, when was the last time you looked at it? We all get used to what’s around us and stop noticing after a while. It’s only human nature. But to prevent habituation, make a point of changing things up. It might mean changing up the pictures or quotes or other items or it might just mean moving them to a new spot where you start to notice them again. One suggestion is to choose a day of the month, perhaps the first or the last of the month, where you review your environment and switch up what you no longer notice.

Remember that change takes time. We are creatures of habit; therefore, when we want to do something differently we need to make the conscious effort over and over again to make it happen. Often people get frustrated before they meet their goal. They think that change happens in a linear fashion, although it rarely does. It’s the perseverance that makes it happen. By altering our environments we find another layer of intervention that can influence us on a daily basis, giving us that much needed repetition in order to change. It’s all about finding the things that work for you. I love nature. It strongly affects my mood and state of mind, but for you it might be music or art or poetry. Find what speaks to you and surround yourself with it in a way that promotes your best self.

Be Well!