What is biophilic design, and can it really make you happier and healthier?

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Recently, a quiet revolution has begun to change the way people think about their spaces, both at home and at work. It centers on the idea that the great indoors should mimic the great outdoors to improve people’s lives–an insight that is backed up with increasing amounts of research.

Biophilic design dates back to the early 1980s, when the biologist Edward O. Wilson outlined his philosophy of biophilia, hypothesizing that humans have an innate, biological affinity for the natural world. Biophilic design takes this idea one step further: Because humans today spend 90% of our time indoors, according to the 2001 National Human Activity Pattern Survey, it’s necessary to bring the outdoors in and create indoor environments that reference nature in both obvious and subtle ways.

At the simplest level, that means plants–and lots of them. This trend has even helped spur a boom in startups catering to plant-obsessed millennials in urban areas, where demand is so great growers report that they can’t keep up. But biophilic design is more than just adding plants to indoor spaces. It’s an ethos that poses interior design not merely as an aesthetic or functional discipline, but as a way to improve people’s mental and physical well-being.

WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY ABOUT IT?

The biophilic design craze has been fueled by a host of scientific studies that indicate that being closer to nature, whether that’s in the form of houseplants or natural light, is beneficial for your health. A landmark 2019 study found that children in Denmark who had been exposed to more greenery had 55% less mental health problems later in life compared to those who weren’t exposed to nature. Other research has shown that plants can reduce stresshelp with focus, and even increase immunity.

Studies have also tied plants to productivity. In a series of two studies, researchers in Norway found that subjects who did reading and attention-based tasks surrounded by greenery improved their scores more over time than subjects who didn’t. How does this work? One idea is called “attention restoration theory”: We spend a lot of time at work in intense focus, which leads to mental fatigue. Spending even a few seconds ripping your eyes from your screen to stare at a desk plant could help give your mind a break and restore your ability to focus. This has led companies like GoogleEtsy, and many more to embrace biophilic design as a means of making employees happier, more creative, and harder working. Living walls in tech company offices are so common that they’ve become a design cliché. Furniture companies now design office tables and desks with planters built in.