Northern Wilds Magazine

Designing Health into Our Homes

Do our homes affect our well-being? The answer to this question is an obvious, “Yes,” but just how that can happen might surprise you. Certainly, one’s health is impacted if there is radon in the air, lead in the water, and short circuits in the wiring. But did you know that your health can also be influenced by how your dishes are organized, where your shoes are stored, or the location of your phone charger? The field of behavioral economics sheds light on why this happens and offers tools to help us more easily make beneficial choices.

Behavioral economics delves into why people sometimes make decisions that aren’t in their best interest and suggests ways we can gently “nudge” ourselves toward more helpful choices. Nudges preserve our freedom to choose what we want, while ensuring that the choices that benefit us the most are the easiest ones to make.

How does this relate to our homes? A great deal! We can intentionally integrate supportive nudges into our living spaces. For example, most of us could do with eating more vegetables and less ice cream. We could try to brute force and willpower our way into those decisions or we could change our home environments so that those choices are pretty effortless. One option would be to cut up your favorite veggies and make a delicious dip to go with them. Store them in a container in the refrigerator on a shelf that’s at eye level. Now you can pull them out in an instant without much effort. And, if you decide to do so while making supper, you, and anyone that you live with, are likely to automatically start snacking on the veggies—no pressure or willpower required. Meanwhile, what about storing the ice cream outside? It’s still available whenever you want it, but you have to think about, and put some effort into, getting it. Do you want to be more aware of your serving sizes? Try putting the large dinner plates on the top shelf and the salad plates where they’re the easiest to grab. They’re more likely to become your first choice, and since they’re smaller, it’s easier to “eyeball” an appropriate serving size.

How can you use these principles to help you move more? Look around your home to find ways that you can make it easier to be active and more difficult to be sedentary. For instance, where are your walking shoes? Are they stored somewhere that you’d have to go find them? Or are they next to the door where you could pop them on in a second and step outside? Many of us relax in the evening in front of the TV. While it may feel good to our tired brains, if we’ve been sitting at a desk all day, those additional hours of being sedentary aren’t doing us any favors. Are there ways to watch your shows and move too? What about keeping a yoga ball, exercise bands, or barbells nearby? Then you can gently bounce, stretch, or strengthen while you relax.

We can also nudge ourselves towards a healthier relationship with technology. Remember, the goal is to make intentional, beneficial use easy and to make mindless, harmful use more difficult. One way to start is to have a single charging station. This allows us to be separated from our devices at least occasionally. Another possibility is to use an alarm clock at bedtime and put your silenced phone on the other side of the room—or better yet, in another room entirely. This way you’ll still get up on time, but you won’t be tempted to check social media or the news first thing in the morning. I find that there’s a direct link to my phone use and whether I’ve got something fun to read. The more I’m enjoying reading, the more the phone gets forgotten. Brainstorm your favorite phone alternatives and then put them where you’ll remember to use them.

The world around us is teeming with “choice architecture” that’s created to influence our behavior in ways that aren’t in our best interest. With a little planning and self-nudging, you can tailor your home so that better health is built in.

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