Engineering eudaimonia

The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.

The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment can help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.

It also got me thinking about what we, as designers of the built environment, are striving for when we say that our ultimate goal is to create “people-centric” buildings and cities that improve health and well-being. After all, Luang Prabang has been known to achieve just that, and yet the town was never specifically designed for health, nor were its buildings “optimized” for well-being.

This paradox could perhaps be explained by our misunderstanding of what “well-being” is in the first place.

Under ideal circumstances, the built environment can help people “feel their own existence as human beings”

The Ancient Greeks used the word eudaimonia to describe human flourishing and to explain how people could strive to live “the good life”. The concept plays a central role in the philosophical teachings of Plato, Aristotle and Stoic philosophers such as Epictetus, although they disagreed about some of its specifics. Aristotle believed that eudaimonia could be achieved with a certain kind of character (or virtue), in addition to external factors such as health, wealth and beauty. For the Stoics, however, virtue alone was sufficient; it is a person’s character and attitude towards external factors — not the external factors themselves — which ultimately contributes to the good life. (A Stoic, in other words, wouldn’t be surprised to discover that a carpenter in Calcutta could be content, while a millionaire model in Manhattan may be miserable.)

Modern science has come to somewhat of a hybrid conclusion. Researchers conducting a meta-analysis of the psychological literature found that well-being is influenced by the sum of three factors: 50 percent is based on a person’s “setpoint” (i.e. their baseline level of happiness); 40 percent is the result of intentional activity (i.e. actions, thoughts and routines); the remaining 10 percent is related to external circumstances (i.e. surrounding environment and possessions). [1]

This means that well-being can largely be modifiable and within a person’s control to improve through intentional activity. It also means that it can’t be significantly changed by environmental adjustments alone.

This seems to suggest that had I stayed in Luang Prabang for much longer, my initial exuberance with the experience of just being there probably would have worn off. Had I not made a conscious effort to continuously renew a positive outlook, I would have returned to my baseline “happiness setpoint”.

A similar reaction has been observed with people who work in green buildings. Researchers have recently found that occupant satisfaction in green certified offices is at its peak in the first year of occupancy and then declines over time. [2] (The researchers speculate that this could be avoided through better occupant feedback mechanisms — areas that the building industry has recently prioritized.)

The same would be true for anyone, anywhere, anytime. To improve well-being, it isn’t enough to work in a beautiful office, live in a walkable neighbourhood, have access to healthy food and be close to family and friends. A person must also cultivate (and continuously renew) a certain kind of positive attitude towards them. (It’s also why it’s entirely possible, though less likely, to have none of these things and yet still flourish.)

This certainly raises many important questions relating to urban design and city building: Is it possible for eudaimonia to be engineered into the built environment? If so, to what extent? How finely-tuned or optimized should we try to make our buildings and cities if well-being largely depends on efforts made people on their own accord? Could an approach that integrates both top-down and bottom-up strategies lead to better outcomes?

On the one hand, we could simply incorporate a wider range of both quantitative and qualitative considerations into urban designs, and rather than use narrowly-defined criteria, perhaps we could instead strive for a “good enough” baseline that allows for flexibility and adaptability over time. Simply providing people with more “adaptive opportunities” — the ability to simply adjust the position of a window blind or being provided access to environmental controls, for example — can greatly influence a person’s psychological evaluation of comfort.

On the other hand, we should curb our enthusiasm and honestly acknowledge that while there are plenty of opportunities to better improve well-being through design interventions, it has its limits. Creating a better baseline is a noble pursuit, but eudaimonia isn’t something that can be fully engineered from the outside, no matter how green the building or healthy the office.

It’s clear that the answers are neither simple nor obvious. But one thing is for certain: anyone who visits Luang Prabang will quickly appreciate the true meaning of eudaimonia.

[1] Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M, & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131

[2] Schiavon, S., & Altomonte, S. (2014). Influence of factors unrelated to environmental quality on occupant satisfaction in LEED and non-LEED certified buildings. Building and Environment, 77, 148–159.

Originally published in The Possible magazine

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Mark Bessoudo

Mark Bessoudo

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I write about cities, buildings, philosophy, sustainability, technology, culture & design. markbessoudo.com/hi