How we've nested in our homes through the pandemic — and why it might be good for us
Homes were never made to be everything — but the right design can help with Covid “nesting” fever.
Living and working full-time in the same space for months on end, due to the 2020 pandemic, many people suddenly became very interested in how their homes looked.
Whether it was thinking that walls really need a brand new coat of paint, or suddenly rearranging all of their furniture, many people decided that there was something about their homes that needed a change.
A part of this realization stems from spending a lot of time indoors in homes that weren't built to be offices or schools.
But Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist whose work focuses on house and home, and is founder of Design With Science, believes that it also comes from a need deeply built into the human mind — the need to nest.
We're always reading the world around us to see what silent signals it's sending to us. We set up our homes, so that we get the signals from what's around us that make us feel good about ourselves and our contribution to our world.- Sally Augustin
Augustin joined Tapestry host Mary Hynes to discuss the deeper reasons behind why people have the urge to change their surroundings, and why it's important to create a refuge that is satisfying to all our senses.
Here is part of their conversation.
What does it mean for people to nest? What does that idea mean to you?
To me, nesting is establishing a space where you feel very comfortable, safe, secure, and where you have the freedom to think about things that have happened to you recently.
Do you have a place like that in your life?
Oh, I sure do. I think I nest in my home overall. But particularly within my home, inside my office, I have, over the years, been able to paint my office colors that I find both relaxing and refreshing. I've been able to manage the clutter there. And I have lots of sunlight, natural materials — all sorts of great things for nesting.
Over the past few months, there seems to have been a serious increase in people buying furniture, repainting their walls, if they're able to, if they are renting, then finding more temporary ways to make the place cozier. How do you understand this instinct as a response to the pandemic?
Humans have a fundamental, core, very basic need to have a space in their life, where they can decompress and refresh. Starting from the time we're little kids, we need this. We require a space where we can decompress, and refresh because that helps us make sense of all this going on in the world around us. For a lot of us, we've had to do a lot more making sense of our world, which makes our nest that much more important.
I'm wondering how much of this is a kind of primal human need hardwired from very early days. How much of this is built in?
All the important aspects of this need to nest are really primordial. They're in the core of our being, especially since when you think about the places where humans have their most positive experiences. Those spaces share lots of attributes with environments where we were most comfortable in our early days as a species. For example, we feel comfortable, relaxed today, and able to think most clearly, when we're in a place where we feel secure, but have a view out over the world around us. Just as we would have had eons ago, say sitting in a cave, up on a hill looking over a valley or sitting up a tree, on a branch looking over the world around us.
In the psych biz, we call this having prospect and refuge. And you see it in how people set up the furniture in their homes. And there's one really excellent example that certainly everybody has seen in the course of their life. Remember when we used to be able to go out to restaurants?
Think about a restaurant where people are able to seat themselves. You find that the first seats that are taken in that sort of environment are those in booths, places where people feel their back is protected, but in particular seats in booths that have views of the door of the restaurant.
The way our brains process sensory information today is not very different from the ways we processed sensory information when our literal survival depended on us seeing approaching danger and being fast on our feet to escape it.
Think about all the writing or discussions you've heard about window seats in the course of your life. They're great from a psychological perspective because, if you're in your home and sitting in a windows seat you're protected, but you have a view out over the world around you.
Think about a restaurant where people are able to seat themselves. You find that the first seats that are taken in that sort of environment are those in booths, places where people feel their back is protected, but in particular seats in booths that have views of the door of the restaurant.- Sally Augustin
A lot of your work is in the realm of the tangible, but I'm interested in some of the more elusive qualities that you need to make someone feel good at home, to make it a place that nourishes.
More important than any of our physical experiences, per se, is how we interpret them in our mind. That this gets back to what we were talking about at the beginning of our discussion, and home is a place to rest, and refresh, and revitalize.
We're always reading the world around us to see what silent signals it's sending to us. We set up our homes, so that we get the signals from what's around us that make us feel good about ourselves and our contribution to our world.
So things like the photographs and the souvenirs that you need around you in your home continually in view are things that remind you of aspects of yourself that you find positive. If you are a parent in that you would indicate that with, say photographs of you and your kids at the Science Museum, for example. Or you're an avid sailor, maybe you would indicate that through a ship model or something but you need these signals.
Now seems a good time to mention that, you know, a lot of our time discussion has focused on things that are visual. But happily, for most of us, we have more than one sensory system chugging away at any one time. So you can be communicating important information about yourself via scents that you use in your environment, or a soundscape.
We need to think about our own experiences with these different sensory phenomena. And what we'll individually draw from them. What the people who share a space with us will draw from these experiences, and also how they'll be interpreted by people who visit our home when that's possible again.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Written and produced by Arman Aghbali.