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A Prescription for Happiness: The Importance of Wellness 

Over the years, our understanding of wellness has not been easy to define. Most of it still remains untapped, yet the term is used in everyday language with the belief that everyone knows what it means. The many dimensions of wellness have often been studied in silos, but in reality, so much can be learned from the experiences of others. What would happen if we sat a designer, doctor or a behaviourist in the same room? What would we learn about the importance of wellness?

At our “Live, Work, Play, Care” events, held at Gensler’s London and Birmingham offices in conjunction with Humanscale, we were able to shed some light on the subject. Our panelists included Dr. Mark Rowe (Waterford Health Park), Katie Newell (Humanscale), Paul Kingsmore (Manchester Metropolitan University), Simon Henderson (Macmillan Cancer Support) and Sarah Ellen O'Farrell (Hill+Knowlton Strategies). Gensler's Alistair Cory moderated, while Tama Duffy Day and Philip Tidd joined the other panelists. Despite their very different backgrounds, all are equally committed to improvements in health and wellness through effectively designed environments.

In a culture that celebrates a ‘pill for every ill’ and encourages people to take medication for "unhappiness," Dr. Rowe believes that we should take charge of our own wellbeing—and not be a victim. However, in his book, “A Prescription for Happiness,” there is one pill he encourages everyone to take: “This biochemical cocktail of brilliance is free and available to all; it’s exercise. When you start moving your body, jogging on the spot, you start to release serotonin—a happy hormone that makes you feel more positive, more confident—happier.”

The Golden Rule

When it comes to healthcare, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of health and the importance of exercise. But when it comes to understanding our wellbeing and happiness and the care it needs, we’re not doing so well. With over half (51 percent) of full-time UK employees saying they have experienced anxiety or burnout in their current job Dr. Rowe believes “more needs to be done to educate and create a system that encourages people to cultivate optimism in a move towards a new paradigm of wellbeing.”

Both employees and their employers must reimagine themselves not as enforcers of productivity, but enablers of purpose. Focusing on seeking purpose within yourself provides an intrinsic motivation that drives innovation and, ultimately, rubs off onto others. “Self-care is not selfish care,” said Dr. Rowe. “Once you choose to be a leader of your own wellbeing and embrace inner happiness, it passes on.”

Like the flu, happiness is contagious. Studies show that emotions (both positive and negative) can ripple through clusters of people who may not even know each other. Moreover, “happiness can span up to three degrees of separation, elevating the mood of your work colleagues, manager, patients or visitors” said Dr. Rowe. So, just imagine your potential impact!

We used to believe that happiness is the end point of achievement, but now we know “it’s the starting point of a whole new range of possibilities” said Dr. Rowe.

Whose job is it anyway?

Getting wellness right in the workplace has been a real journey. Although we’ve spent many years attempting to codify and quantify the link between buildings and the ways in which people react to them, “There are things that we just don’t understand about the way our subconscious brain reacts to space, which has a direct and important impact on wellbeing,” said Gensler's Philip Tidd. “And we’re only at the foothills of understanding it.” There is an obvious need to move away from focusing solely on efficiencies and cost optimisations into an era where the physical space needs to align with social needs to create places for staff to flourish, feel energetic and be at their best. “If that experience is bad, then maybe the physical space is getting in the way, as it’s the interaction between these two things that forms that happy experience” said Simon Henderson. But wellbeing isn’t exclusively administered by your employer. Remember, you also have to take charge.

A sense of purpose

In a ‘purposeful age,’ “A huge amount of our life satisfaction and happiness is derived from a sense of purposefulness and unfortunately many people in the world aren’t even aware of that,” asserts Sarah O’Farrell. Instead, the general population believes that the sense of purpose stems from hedonic principles (pleasure attainment and pain avoidance), rather than the deep-rooted eudaimonic principles (meaning and self-realisation). “Eudaimonic satisfaction is one that’s really under researched and under applied in the wellbeing space,” O’Farrell said. “We don’t yet have many propositions for how to help employees feel more purposeful, but generally and globally it's not an aspect of employee wellbeing that’s looked at.”

Insights into the subconscious reasons behind certain types of behaviour have been used in the marketing field over the last 10 years. The benefits of this thinking are only now being seen in the field of employee health and wellbeing—with exciting prospects for innovation in the physiological and psychological sphere. As designers, we need to be looking at this as a bigger wellbeing issue, and start designing some actionable interventions around it.

This post is the first in a series of blog posts on health & wellness. Stay tuned for the next post, which will take a look at actionable interventions.

Alistair Cory is a Firmwide Health & Wellness practice area leader and directs the Birmingham, England office. With considerable experience in strategic and management delivery across a broad range of sectors, Alistair guides Gensler's growth throughout the U.K. markets and EMEA region. A skilled architect, project manager and business leader, Alistair is driven by the transformational power of great design. He applies his expertise—gleaned through projects ranging from leisure and healthcare to education and science—to hone his project approach: challenging the project brief, injecting fresh thinking to solve problems, seeking out efficiencies, and delivering more for less. Contact him at alistair_cory@gensler.com.
Tama Duffy Day is a principal and Firmwide Health & Wellness practice area leader. A strategic thinker with extensive experience in a diverse range of projects, Tama is dedicated to raising awareness of the power of design to impact lives and enrich communities. This focus reaches beyond the typical healthcare environment and includes retail, workplace, and education. Tama’s continued contributions to design and research keep her on the forefront of emerging trends that benefit her clients and produce environments that are inspirational, effective and life enhancing. She can be reached at tama_duffyday@gensler.com and @TamaDuffyDay.