Why Natural Light is So Important

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I’m writing this sitting in my office in the dark. Our offices are lovely, set in a 1900s heritage building, with original brick walls, high ceilings and, as is typical of the era, just one window upstairs.

There is a storm this afternoon, and the sky is black. Ominous thunder is booming in the background, and even the birds have gone quiet.

We don’t use electric lights during the day, and so I’m noticing the office is dark and still. And it’s making me feel a little bit sleepy.

For millennia, humans have lived outside according to the rhythms of the sun. We’ve woken with natural light, and gone to sleep when it gets dark.

It’s only really recently that we have discovered electricity, and with it, the ability to light houses any time of the day or night. And even more recently, we’ve discovered back-lit computers and devices. And it is wreaking havoc with our wellness.

As people, we’re both amazingly complex and wonderfully simple. Although there is some complex and amazing science to explain this in detail, the simple version about how light affects us is this; we have two inverse sets of hormones: melatonin and serotonin. Only one can be elevated at a time. Serotonin is our happy day hormone, and melatonin is our sleepy night hormone.

In the morning, we need natural light to get our daytime serotonin happening.

At night, we need darkness (and not screen time!) to get our night-time sleepy melatonin to calm us down and let us sleep.

Without natural light, it’s really hard for our hormones to know what to do. We lose the sense of time that we have evolved with based on being outdoors, and so if we’re inside and away from the outdoors all day, our bodies don’t know what to do.

Property development and wellness haven’t really been linked until recently, but when we consider how much time we spend in buildings, and how we benefit from natural light and being outside, it is clear that we need a solution.

For those of us without outdoor offices, there is an option. It’s a simple as investing, living and working in buildings that understand our human need for natural light.

Orientation and windows are the two key things here. In the southern hemisphere, the north side of a building will get the most light. Our office might have only one window upstairs, but because it faces north, and it’s on the second storey, we have an abundance of natural light. Where possible, working from natural sunlight is a lot better for our wellness than working under artificial light. It allows our work time to fit in with our natural rhythm, which is crucial for balance.

The type of window also makes a difference. In short, the bigger the better, but anything with a view of outside will do. There have been great advances in glass technology recently that allow for light and heat to be modified to trap heat, reflect heat and reflect light, which warrants a whole other article. For now, any window is great, particularly if you can open in. In subtropical Newcastle, we’re lucky enough to be able to work with our windows open most of the year, which helps us to feel fresh, energized and in sync with the seasons.

Bedrooms, bathrooms, laundries and media rooms are all more appropriate for the south side of a house, where it is practical to have less light. Rooms suited to northern light are kitchens and living areas, ideally looking out onto green gardens where plants (and edible plants) will grow in abundance.

Happy window shopping!


Insights From A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

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Insights From A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Written by Martin Seligman

Blog Post by Alice Joy

Flourish is written by Martin Seligman, a well-respected academic and self-confessed conservative research scientist, who is known as the founder and ‘father’ of Positive Psychology. His latest book, ‘Flourish’, has a simple aim; to help you flourish.

Does it live up to its promise?


Positive psychology is a science that focuses on ‘the good life’: human potential, thriving and flourishing. ‘Psychology-as-is’ focuses on negative emotions and treatments for those symptoms with the aim to get people back to neutral, or symptom free. If you imagine a spectrum of wellness, with -10 being the worst, and +10 being the best, ‘psychology-as-is’ focuses on getting people, at best, to zero (or neutral). Positive psychology focuses on zero to +10.

I don’t know about you, but if what you focus on grows, I would rather learn how to flourish than how to avoid suffering.
This is an academic, thoroughly researched yet readable book about a rewarding and intriguing science which is well worth reading in its entirety.

However, if you don’t have the time, here is a simple summary of the top 12 things that really stood out for me.

1. ‘Happiness’ and ‘Well-being’ are not the same thing

Being happy is great. However, happiness is only a small part of overall well-being and well being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology. ‘Happiness’ often just refers to positive emotions, like joy, awe, contentment, love and excitement. However, well-being is much broader than just happy emotions, and the positive psychology framework for well being is called PERMA.

2. Positive Psychology has a key framework: PERMA

PERMA is the golden ticket to well-being. If you get your PERMA right, increased life satisfaction and happiness await. PERMA has five elements, listed below, and no one element of PERMA defines well-being. All of the elements are measurable, and they all count. These elements are:

a. Positive Emotions (joy, awe, contentment etc)
b. Engagement (engagement, or flow, happens where your highest strengths are deployed to meet your highest challenges (see more about these strengths in point 4 below)
c. Relationships (all truly happy people have strong social relationships and connections)
d. Meaning (in something bigger than yourself), and
e. Achievement (you need to be kicking goals along the way).

3. There are easy exercises that you can do that will raise your well-being and lower your depression (if any)

There are small, simple interventions that, if practised regularly, can literally and without drugs increase your happiness and well being. They are clinically proven. That is amazing. To keep it brief, two examples include the Three Good Things, and the Gratitude Visit.
Gratitude is a powerful emotion that can make your life happier and more satisfying, and there are many studies that suggest that finding three things to be grateful for every day has a profound positive impact on your baseline level of happiness. The Three Good Things exercise teaches you to focus on things to be grateful for, which helps to strengthen positive neural patterns (as opposed to our evolutionary tendency to be negative). Writing them down can increase the impact.
The Gratitude Visit takes it further: choose someone still alive who years ago did something that changed your life, and who you have never truly thanked. Write them a 300-word thank-you letter about what they did and how it impacted you. Be specific. Tell them how often you think of it. Deliver it face-to-face next week, but make the purpose of the visit a surprise. Read the letter out. It will make you happier and less depressed one month from the visit. Sciences proves it.

4. Do more of what you’re already good at

Positive psychology has discovered that there are 24 signature strengths, spread across five different virtues. To find out what your strengths are, you can take the Values in Action Signature Strengths Test online, for free, on Martin Seligman’s website.
You will know when you self-assess your signature strengths what they are for you because you will feel like that strength is true and exciting, you will yearn to find new ways to use it, you will feel strength when you use it, invigoration when using it (not exhaustion), you will create opportunities to use it, and you will feel joy, zest and enthusiasm whilst using it.
If you find new and innovative ways to use your top five signature strengths every day, your baseline level of happiness will increase.
The more you focus on how it felt to use the strength, the better the experience will be. That’s quite amazing!

5. Psychological drugs are nowhere near as effective as we might believe

There are two types of medications: curative and cosmetic. Curative mediations cure the disease. Cosmetic drugs supress symptoms temporarily. Seligman states that ‘every single drug on the shelf of the psychopharmacopoeia is cosmetic’ and that ‘biological psychiatry has given up on a cure’. Also, the effect of psychotherapy drugs are almost always technically ‘small’, with the best most can do is reach 65% relief.
Frightening. Positive psychology, luckily, is a whole different story!

6. The way that you respond to other people’s positive events really, really matters

Most ‘good’ people are nice to someone in crisis. However, what is more telling is how we respond to other people’s positive events, and this is especially true in romantic relationships.

There are four types of responses that you can give:

a. Active and Constructive (this is the good one)
b. Passive and Constructive
c. Active and Destructive, and
d. Passive and Destructive.

Anything other than an active and constructive response will undermine rather than build the relationship.
To give Seligman’s example, imagine that your life partner/sibling/best friend just won $500. A genuine active constructive response, supported with eye contact and positive emotion, would be: “How wonderful! That’s really great. What are you going to do with it? How did you feel when you won the money? Tell me about how you came about winning this.”
An active destructive response would go with negative emotions, and be something like: “I bet there’s a catch. I never win anything.”
A passive constructive approach, with limited emotion, would be: “That’s nice.”
A passive destructive approach, with limited eye-contact, and turning away from the other person would be: “I had a bad day at work today.”
If you’re a good active constructive responder, people will like you more, spend more time with you, and share more of their lives with you, which makes you feel better. It’s a skill worth cultivating. Seligman recommends spending a week noting how you respond to other people’s good news, and if you’re not yet good at it, prepare in advance and start practicing!

7. School doesn’t teach us about well-being: you have to learn elsewhere

Seligman makes a blindingly obvious yet crucial point here. When asked: “what do you want for your children?”, most people say ‘happiness’, ‘kindness’, ‘confidence’, ‘fulfillment’, ‘balance’, ‘good stuff’, ‘kindness’, ‘health’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘love’.
When asked “what does school teach your children?” they say ‘achievement’, ‘thinking skills’, ‘success’, ‘conformity’, ‘literacy’, ‘maths’, ‘work’, ‘test-taking’ and ‘discipline’.
Do you notice how these are not the same?
Our current educational system creates children and adults alike that are seriously lacking in the skills of how to be happy. Seligman thinks that we should change that. I tend to agree.

8. We can be drawn by the future, not driven by the past

Social science is underpinned by the idea that malignant environments, not bad character, produce crime. That premise takes away a lot of personal responsibility, making circumstances, not people, responsible for bad behaviour. Further, in that world-view, to create change, you must change the circumstances and environments and not punish bad nor reward good behaviour. That leads to governments spending money to correct social problems.
In contrast from ‘psychology-as-usual’ (which is, as Seligman bitingly states, the psychology of victims, negative emotions, alienation, pathology and tragedy), positive psychology puts the responsibility back on the person, looking at their character, with free will and individual responsibility as causes.
That changes the way that we should intervene: not only can we better the world by making environments and circumstances better, we can also identify and shape character.
Good events, high achievement and positive emotions are to positive psychology what bad events, under-achievement and negative emotions are to ‘psychology-as-usual’. When we take positive events as being just as legitimate as negative events, we can focus on character, strength and talent.
In ‘psychology-as-usual’, the focus is on habits, drives and circumstances. In contrast, positive psychology believes that we are drawn by the future, which means that expectations, planning and conscious choices are the focus. Our character defines us, and gives individuals back responsibility and control.

9. GRIT is the queen of all of the virtues

GRIT is the extreme expression of the virtue of self-discipline, and can be defined as ‘the combination of very high persistence and high passion for the objective’. Extraordinary achievement is very rare. Most extraordinary achievers possess high grit. There is a GRIT test (available in Flourish).

10. You can turn trauma into growth

We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (‘PTSD’). But have you heard of post traumatic growth (PTG)?
Seligman has worked extensively with the USA Military on resilience training and cultivating PTG instead of PTSD, which he describes as ‘the tail wagging the dog’.
There is a bell-shaped distribution of the human response to high adversity, with the low end resulting in pathology, but the high end resulting in significant growth.
Until recently, in the military, 90% of the soldiers knew about PTSD, but only 10% about PTG. In reality, and without implying that trauma is a good thing, trauma does often set the stage for growth. Both early resilience training as well as post-event positive psychology interventions can increase the chances of experiencing PTG. Mental toughness can be built.

11. Optimistic people are less likely to die than pessimistic people

Many reliable studies have been done that show that optimistic people enjoy better health, longevity and quality of life than those who are pessimists. In some studies, optimism was the only variable that impacted your chances of an early death. Luckily for those with a tendency towards pessimism, optimism can be learned.

12. Above a certain threshold, more money does not make you happier

And there we have it: scientific proof that when our basic needs are met (and this varies greatly), money cannot buy happiness. For example, in the USA, the GDP has tripled in the last 50 years, but life satisfaction has been flat. Worse, measures of ill-being have increased: depression has risen tenfold, anxiety rates have risen and social connection and trust have dropped. Having money helps; after all, we do buy a lot of positive emotions (think travel, hotels, dinners out, luxury chocolates, nice clothes), and wealth does contribute to life satisfaction. However, money doesn’t affect happiness or good mood, and money’s effects cap out lower than one would expect.
The skills of the good life – enjoying positive emotion, being engaged with loved ones, having meaning in life, achieving goals and maintaining good relationships – are not the same skills as not being depressed, not being angry and not being anxious. Just as in medicine, removing the symptoms does not mean that a person is flourishing. Positive mental health is not just the absence of mental illness.
Being a 0 or a 1 on a scale of flourishing that reaches 10 isn’t optimal, but many of us languish there. Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing, which is definitely a worthwhile pursuit. Positive, happy and ‘well’ is a goal for many people, and positive psychology gives us the tools to get there.