As European countries go into a COVID-19-induced lockdown again amid a cold, dark winter, people will be spending even more time indoors. Small changes in your home can make you mentally healthier.
When Esther Sternberg's father was in a concentration camp in Transnistria, now Moldova, during World War II, his only source of comfort was his favorite psalm, Psalm 23. The biblical verses describe resting in green pastures, being led to still waters and restoring the soul.
People always reference nature when asked what their favorite visual scene is, according to Sternberg, research director at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine in Tucson, Arizona.
Glimmers of hope that help people through hardship don't have to be big or even tangible. This also applies to the stress many people are feeling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coronavirus lockdowns, which have kept people at home for most of the year, have highlighted why it is important to have spaces that promote mental health.
In Europe, 46% of people live in apartments, according to the European Union's statistical office. These spaces feel more crowded when schools close and workplaces tell their employees to work from home. In cities – where most people in the world live – many people do not even have access to a garden.
Stressful situations send our bodies into "fight or flight" mode. This allows us to deal with a threat immediately. But when someone is stressed for a long time — like during a pandemic — it can harm the immune system.
"When we think about stress in general, it's important to acknowledge that there's a lot of individual differences," said Jean-Philippe Gouin, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Concordia University in Canada. "So one situation might be stressful for someone, but not very stressful for someone else."
Scientists have long known that spending time in nature can lower people's stress levels. Studies have also shown that looking at greenery or even pictures of it relieves stress. In a Danish study published in 2015, students who were shown photos of green urban spaces after solving hard math equations experienced less stress than those who looked at photos of built urban spaces.
People can create spaces that promote mental health by changing environmental factors like the levels of noise, light, temperature, humidity and adding a bit of nature.
Sternberg recommends that employees working from home place their desk by a window with a view. If that's not possible, they can add plants and pictures of nature scenes.
"Everybody has a different kind of feeling [about] what their sanctuary would be," said Sternberg. "But I do think it's possible to create your little sanctuary for yourself intentionally."
The 19th-century British textile designer and social activist William Morris said: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or beautiful."
For some, it can be hard to identify good design, but easier to notice when design is bad, said Phoebe Oldrey, founder of UK-based interior design firm Smartstyle Interiors. This is an example of "negativity bias," the idea that negative things affect us more than positive things, even when they are of equal intensity.
"You probably don't realize you feel better, or that you're healthier, or that your sleep's better because of the way your environment's put together, but it's there," Oldrey told DW. "You would notice if you were having a terrible night's sleep, if you were tripping over your coffee table every single day — we always take note of the bad."
However, reaching a balance between practicality and beauty is important for our mental health, as studies have shown that clutter creates stress. A UCLA study published in 2010 found that for some women, clutter produced cortisol patterns similar to those seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"What our home looks like is really important to us," said Oldrey. "It's a representation of who we are, and looking at beautiful things brings us joy, and we sometimes get shy to say that because it sounds so frivolous."
When the pandemic started, Sternberg's daughter started an online design course. One of the students who was designing a chair began to cry and question the worth of what she was studying in the face of the pandemic.
"My daughter said: 'If you're working from home, your chair could be the most important thing in your life,'" said Sternberg.
For those in the darker months of their year, taking on a winter mindset might be another healthy approach. Scandinavian designs that reflect this idea have grown popular in recent years. The functional approach utilizes natural materials, simple lines and muted colors, and features cozy sofas topped with chunky throw rugs. Maximizing sunlight is crucial in countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway, which have long dark winters.
"One of the main features that Scandinavian architects are interested in, in terms of improving the quality of living, is the daylight and how you articulate daylight through architecture," Danish architecture historian Martin Soberg told DW.
Our circadian rhythm is finely tuned to natural light. We rise with the sun and sleep as it travels across the other side of the world. Certain types of artificial light hurt our body clock, which is why scientists say we should avoid the blue light that comes from our laptops and smartphones at night.
To maximize sleep, we should aim to get sunlight from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., Sternberg said. As tempting as it is to stay in bed when working from home, she recommends trying to keep a regular sleep pattern.
Some people find the change in season so disruptive that they experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder, which often hits people at the end of autumn and lasts through winter.
As a Fulbright scholar in Tromso, Norway — where the sun doesn't rise for two months in winter — psychologist Kari Leibowitz observed how a small shift in mindset can help people make the most of winter.
While many people see winter as a dreary season full of barriers to fun, Leibowitz found that the people in Tromso saw winter as a special time of year full of opportunity. Her observations suggested that it's easier to have a positive winter mindset when those around you also do.
Leibowitz's research showed that having a positive attitude towards winter was associated with better well-being during winter, but noted that further research needs to be done before claiming there is a causal link between the two.
To make winter feel special, it can help to embrace the Danish concept of "hygge," which promotes coziness and connectedness with others. Writing in The New York Times, Leibowitz also suggested making a list of everything you appreciate about winter and then trying to consciously focus on these things throughout the cold months.