Time to Pitch the Picasso: How Your Office Art Choice Might Affect Your Well-Being
As lawyers and business professionals, we can’t escape stress and anxiety. It just comes with the territory of our jobs. But we do have control over a lot of little things that might help create a better work environment. A few of those little things are the art we display in our offices and sneaking long peeks out of our windows.
Personally, I love abstract art. My office and home walls are filled with it. Or, rather, they were filled with it until recently when I learned that nature scenes can have a big impact on us—including our mood, health, and cognitive performance.
A significant body of research shows that physically being in nature (walking, hiking, etc.) has numerous benefits for health and well-being. That research is itself fascinating and worth its own blog in the future. But I was more surprised to learn that simply viewing nature—through our office windows or even via photographs or virtual reality displays—can impact us physiologically and emotionally. Studies show that viewing visual images through art can impact health and that positive, calming images of nature are particularly therapeutic.
Anxiety & Stress Reduction
For example, in a study conducted in a psychiatric hospital (which sometimes resemble business offices!), different pieces of visual art were displayed in a lounge area on a rotating basis—a photo of a savannah landscape, a Van Gogh abstract landscape painting (“The Field”), and a Pollock abstract, non-representational painting (“Convergence”). Typically, patients occupied the room during a three- to four-day stay. The results of the study reflected that the realistic nature photo had a calming effect while abstract art and the absence of art did not. In fact, nurses needed to dispense far less medication for anxiety and agitation on days where the nature photo was displayed. Researchers concluded that realistic nature images can materially affect anxiety levels and should be considered when decorating hospitals.
In another study of psychiatric patients, researchers found that patients had strong negative reactions to artwork that was ambiguous, surreal, or could be interpreted in multiple ways. The same patients reported positive feelings in response to nature paintings and prints.
A study of stressed-out college students during final exam season showed that viewing images of natural scenes produced positive feelings and dramatically reduced their fearful emotions about their tests. Another study showed that viewing images of natural settings had a dramatic impact on stress reduction, as measured by a number of physiological indicators of stress (e.g., muscle tension, skin conductivity).
Even brain waves can change when nature scenes are present. One study showed that viewing natural images induced alpha brain waves, which indicate a tranquil and alert state of mind. Urban scenes did not have the same effect.
Recovery from Illness/Pain
In other healthcare settings, natural scenery also has had helpful effects in reducing stress, mitigating pain, and speeding recovery. For example, dental patients reported lower levels of stress when a nature scene mural was visible during treatment. They also had significant decreases in systolic blood pressure compared to those who viewed no pictures or viewed outdoor action scenes.
Similarly, in a medical procedure room, adult patients reported better pain control when exposed to a nature scene with nature sounds in the ceiling. In a study of post-surgery patients, those who had a window that gave a view of green trees reported less pain, got along better with hospital staff, and were discharged significantly earlier than patients who had a window that faced a brick wall.
In another study, breast cancer patients reported reduced anxiety, fatigue and distress during chemotherapy when exposed to a virtual reality display of underwater and art museum scenes.
In a prison setting, inmates whose cells faced a concrete courtyard had a 24% higher rate for visiting the infirmary than prisoners who had a view of pastoral farmland.
Nature scenes also can impact cognitive performance. In one study, college students took various cognitive tests focused on short-term attention. Students in the study who had an all-natural or mostly natural views from their dorm room windows performed significantly better than their classmates that did not have a nature view.
Although I didn’t locate any art studies specifically in a business office context, the studies above suggest that displaying nature scenes in our offices may have a therapeutic effect. So too may peeking out the windows in our offices and conference rooms. It appears that we humans have an evolutionary connection to nature that produces beneficial physiological responses. Since, as lawyers and other professionals, we can use all the help we can get in reducing negativity, it might be worth trading the Picasso in your office for an Ansel Adams.
Nanda, U., Eisen, S., Zadeh, R. S., & Owen, D. (2011). Effect of visual art on patient anxiety and agitation in a mental health facility and implications for the business case. Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, 18, 386–393.
Rader, S. (2009). Ecopsychology revealed: An empirical look at the benefits of nature experience for human beings and the world (Doctoral dissertation). Available from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database.