How our surroundings impact our happiness

We’re constantly hearing how happiness comes from within. but it’s also true that your environment can bring you joy: flowers on someone’s windowsill, the blue hues of the ocean, a browse through a paper shop. In issue 35 Annemiek Leclaire explores how our surroundings impact our happiness.

I once visited a museum in the middle of the Netherlands – a building made of dark stone. It is situated beautifully among some trees, but I found the squareness of the building depressing and the bare, wet tree trunks visible through the large windows reminded me of prison bars. I was already feeling rather shaky after a period full of losses, but then my mood just spiraled.

Later that day, when I entered a hotel lobby back in town, the depression slipped off me like a heavy cloak. Here there were curved corridors, light wooden features and a courtyard with lush green plants. Wherever I looked I had a view of water. I was amazed by how refreshed I felt. Apparently, I thought, as I looked out at the water with a sense of relief, I like symmetry less than organic lines, dark less than light, stone less than wood, forest less than water. But why is that?

The nature of our minds

We constantly hear that happiness comes from within, but the environment plays an important role in how we feel, too. Environmental psychologists such as Gary Evans from Cornell University College of Human Ecology in the US have been mapping what aspects make us happy and which make us depressed.

In architecture, most people like a light, clean environment with easy sight lines, and without dark, bleak, windy corners. Conversely, Evans writes in his article The Built Environment and Mental Health, the buildings in which people feel most unhappy are tall, large and impersonal, with long anonymous corridors and no cozy nooks where groups can stand and chat.

Considerable research has also been done on the effect of nature on our minds. Whether it is the so-called fractal forms of leaves and flowers or the unimpeded view of vegetation and horizons, it’s a fact that a view of nature improves concentration and has a calming effect on body and mind. Jolanda Maas, senior researcher at the VU Amsterdam university in the Netherlands calls this ‘Vitamin G’ (where G stands for green) in her 2009 dissertation on the subject of healthy environments.

All around the world, there are buildings springing up that have vertical forests built into the facades. As Dutch architect Timo Cents explains, “Anyone looking out at greenery will feel better. All that greenery makes people feel calmer, less stressed, and happier and healthier in general.” Now that it is proven that a view of greenery can even have a healing effect, healthcare institutions are also going green and it’s becoming more standard for nursing homes and hospitals to create views of lawns and trees. This is called a ‘healing environment’.


Colors, prints and shapes also influence the way we feel. US-based designer Ingrid Fetell Lee has been studying precisely what makes people happy for years. According to her, the term ‘joyfulness’ means an intense, temporary state of positive emotion that you can identify through clear signals such as smiling or laughing, and by the feeling that you want to leap into the air. “A high-energy form of happiness,” she calls it.

It is slightly different than happiness, which is more durable and is experienced as a calmer state of mind. It is also not the same as pleasure, which goes deeper. Joyfulness is the spontaneous smile on your face when you see a row of abundantly flowering hollyhocks in the city, for example. Or it is the sigh of relief when you sit down on a sunny balcony or terrace with a view.

Fetell Lee has identified ten aesthetic features that make people feel joy: Most people become joyful from seeing bright colors because they are energizing powers. We often get joy from cakes with candles, fireworks and piñatas because of their festive character. We tend to love a rolling stretch of lawn and a large body of water because of the associated sense of freedom; blossoming flowers attract us because of the sense of renewal; and we appreciate stars and the Northern Lights because they evoke a sense of magic in us.

Round shapes are attractive, according to Fetell Lee, because of the association with playing games. “I discovered the link with joyfulness when I looked at the shape of things that children like, such as soap bubbles, balls, balloons, hula hoops, merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels,” she says. “I think we like round shapes because we associate them with our childhood.” Fetell Lee is also researching the origins of our aesthetic preferences. For example, the sight of abundance – such as in confetti, candy stores and flea markets – would give our brains, trained by evolution to avoid scarcity, the joy-inducing signal ‘morethan enough’.


Some preferences are shared by everyone around the world. All cultures have a distinct preference for light and clarity, for example. “If we are given the choice of working in a room with clear daylight or in the basement, the vast majority will opt for the lighter space,” Fetell Lee says. Everywhere in the world, people also love vast, Savannah-like landscapes. According to Agnes van den Berg, professor of Experiencing and Valuing Nature at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, this preference has evolutionary roots. ‘These landscapes offer the opportunity to hide as well as to explore,’ she writes in one of her academic articles.

Whether we like something or not is also often determined by what we need at the time. For me on that gray, wet Sunday, when my head was full of questions and my heart was heavy with loss, the last thing I needed was a building that looked like a funeral home. Dutch environmental psychologist Joren van Dijk agrees, adding, “It also depends on the person and the situation. Some people like it when a city square is spacious and well-arranged, but a child probably won’t like that there is a lack of hiding places.”

Van Dijk personally likes a workspace with an unencumbered view of greenery, because he is quickly distracted. “But someone whose work has an interactive role with people usually prefers a more central location,” he says.

Personal preferences also play a role in our appreciation of landscapes. Van den Berg investigated why some people tend to prefer manicured landscapes while others prefer rugged nature. In her article Lost in the Wilderness, she writes that she found that people who prefer rugged nature are better at suppressing the negative connotations of death and destruction, allowing them to enjoy more of the many positive things that wilderness has to offer.


“Not everyone is attracted to the same aesthetics,” Fetell Lee agrees. “Someone who loves the mountains probably craves beautiful things that go upward—an aesthetic feature that we call ‘transcendence’—like fireworks and hot air balloons. Someone who prefers the colorful Moroccan souks, meanwhile, is seeking a sense of abundance.”

According to her, this can be explained by differences in personality or by a temporary need in a person. “People who work in offices often long for landscapes that give a sense of freedom; an escape from the limitations of having to sit at a desk all day,” she says. “And people who have to be very serious in their work are more inclined to choose an environment that offers opportunities for play so that their inner child can surface.”

How we perceive the outside world is an unconscious process. According to Van Dijk, we use our senses—our vision, hearing, smell—to map out in the fraction of a second what possibilities the environment offers for the activity we intend: Can we cross safely here, can we daydream while we cycle, can we work with our full concentration? This exploration is intuitive, he says. Taking everything in consciously all the time would exhaust us. Nevertheless, a little more attention to our environment might not be a bad thing.

We are so inclined to introspection, are so urbanized and are so absorbed by technology that we are getting worse and worse at looking at what’s around us. As a result, the language used to describe the world outside of us has become highly impoverished—especially when it comes to describing the natural environment.

In fact, British author Robert Macfarlane goes so far as to write in his book, Landmarks, that the conversation is silent. This is unfortunate, he says, because if you know the words, you experience what you see more deeply. Your experience is enriched.

Macfarlane collects nature-related words that are in danger of being forgotten—not out of nostalgia, but because when you have a word for something, you see it more readily. In recent years, he has made an inventory of thousands of words: words for the extent to which something is frozen, words for what the surface of water looks like, or for the precise shape of a hill.

There are words for the outline in the grass of where an animal has recently slept, for a small piece of thorny  wilderness, for a bubble in the ice, and also crystal-clear descriptions of different states of wind, storms and clouds. The Gaelic word ciabhar, for example, is a ‘slight breeze, just enough to stir the hair’.

Tangible joy

This awareness of the environment is important because there is so much happiness tied up in it. “The great thing about finding joy outside yourself is that you can experience it again and again,” says Fetell Lee. “It is an inexhaustible source.” Things that make you happy – a good job, partner or house, for example – eventually become a bit ordinary. This is called Hedonic Adaptation in science. But that which purely by coincidence elicits a big smile or triggers a moment of relaxation can be something different at different times.

Once she knew what to look for, Fetell Lee says she saw joyfulness everywhere. “It was as if small moments of joy were hidden away in plain view,” she says. In her book, Joyful, she writes: ‘As I delved deeper into these findings, joy started to become less amorphous and abstract to me and more tangible and real. It no longer seemed difficult to attain, the result of years of introspection or disciplined practice. Instead, I began to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I could turn to at any time.

I found that certain places have a kind of buoyancy—a bright corner café, a local yarn shop, a block of brownstones whose window boxes overflow with blooms—and I started changing my routines to visit them more often. On bad days, rather than feeling overwhelmed and helpless, I discovered small things that could reliably lift my spirits. I started incorporating what I had learned into my home and began to feel a sense of excitement as I put my key into the lock each evening […] Joy isn’t hard to find at all. In fact, it’s all around us’.

Journal of Joy 

It is precisely because environment is so important to us, that Fetell Lee encourages joyspotting: asking ourselves what places and things make us feel most joyful and why, and what aesthetic elements we notice. She recommends keeping a notebook for writing down which items, shapes, objects, colors, prints, spaces and landscapes give you joy. Not a gratitude diary, but a ‘joy journal’. Questions you can ask yourself for example are:

  • How often do I smile in a certain place?
  • How often do I feel unreservedly happy there?
  • What feeling does a certain garden, neighborhood or room evoke in me?

I have a thin notebook in my handbag, and when the corners of my mouth curl up naturally, I write the moment down: Pointy church spires in the distance; being able to see the horizon and thinking that everything is still possible; birds of prey above waterland; old polders with ditches running across them like veins; cyclamen pink and violet flowers; magazine covers with nature illustrations; chocolate in a beautiful wrapper…

I love the aesthetics that Fetell Lee has named ‘abundance’, ‘transcendence’ and, most of all, ‘freedom’. Now that I know that, I can use this knowledge consciously. So I don’t make appointments in dark museums, but I do meet up with people in wooden buildings by the water. In this way, joy comes within my reach much more.

  • Read more about finding joy in issue 35.

Text Annemiek Leclaire Photography Esther Driiehouse/