Character  &  Context

Finding Meaning and Ambiance: Preview of “Psychology in Action” at Austin meeting

"What gives you meaning" in graffiti text over a brick background

By Lisa M.P. Munoz

My office recently underwent a makeover – replacing open and unwieldy shelves with sturdy drawers to conceal my clutter, and ditching my tiny desk for a spacious one with lots of open space for me to organize my projects. Throughout this renovation, my thought kept coming back to two major themes: productivity and storage.

Turns out that those two themes are among six sets of traits that people commonly use to create ambiance in their home spaces, according to new work by Sam Gosling at the University of Texas-Austin. The other four? Restoration, kinship, stimulation, and intimacy. Each of those words has many sub-traits that describe how people want to evoke a particular ambiance in a particular space.

In his study of about 200 people, for example, 60% of participants chose one of the following words to describe the ambiance they most wanted for their kitchens: organization, family, productivity, abundance, and togetherness. And they found that 62% of participants wanted their bedrooms to evoke a sense of romance, comfort, relaxation, love, and privacy.

“What’s particularly interesting is that in evoking these ambiances people do a lot of things — for example, lighting candles to evoke a sense of romance that affect the air quality of homes — that sometimes present some serous hazards to health,” Gosling says. More generally, “features of the space are probably affecting your levels of comfort, the emotions and thoughts you are experiencing, and the actions in which you are likely to engage.”

At next week’s SPSP conference in Austin, Gosling will present a body of research about how people influence their spaces and vice versa. In his talk, Gosling will be urging us all to think about our surroundings — everything from where we are located in the space to how we decorate it. Whether you are sitting by a window or a wall could completely change how you feel about that space.

“Space is a pervasive yet ignored mechanism for regulating one’s emotions,” he says. “That is, I think we’re using space all the time to influence our feelings, but lay people and academics alike haven’t really taken on board the significant role that spatial ambiances play in our day to day lives.”

Gosling and colleague Lindsay Graham also have conducted recent work showing that judges are able to guess what a bar or cafe is like in terms of its ambiance just from looking at profile pictures of people who frequent it. “With more and more of our lives being lived both in the physical and virtual worlds, it’s important to understand the kinds of impressions we give off to others through the traces we leave behind in our environments,” Graham told SPSP last year.

Gosling’s talk will be one of four at a special session, which will be professionally videotaped, in Austin called “Lights, Camera… Psychology in Action,” highlighting exciting areas of new research in personality and social psychology. The other three speakers are Roy Baumeister, Barbara Frederickson, and Laura King.

King of the University of Missouri will be debunking common myths about meaning in life. Part of the talk stems from new work analyzing published studies and large-sale surveys. It suggests that most people rate their lives as pretty meaningful — overturning a common idea that finding meaning in life is rare. “In a vast array of samples, ranging from individuals who have a psychological disorder, to those struggling with addiction, to people with serious physical illness, to everyday folk, the levels of meaning in life people espouse are above the midpoint on ratings scales,” King says.

Other myths she’ll debunk include that meaning is life is ineffable, hard, or that it requires thoughtful reflection and active construction. Also, she will challenge the notion that reality is inherently meaningless. “Scholars have sometimes claimed that meaning in life is the essence of a First World Problem: No one worries about meaning in life if survival is on the line,” she says. “I suggest that this is a myth: Meaning in life is not a first world problem; meaning in life solves an age old problem — a feeling that tells us whether the world is making sense.”

“Meaning in life is not a mystery and it is not something that is forever out of reach,” King says. “It can be studied scientifically, and science can help us understand why we long for meaning and how to enhance a sense of meaning but also help us notice meaning when it is happening to us.”

More for me to think about as I sit in my new office looking out the window at the world…

Video will be available online for this special session, featuring Gosling, King, and others. Check this page again on Feb. 17 for more.


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Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

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