Design for Well-being: Teaching Resiliency

This morning, I attended the third and final installment of Gensler‘s ‘Dialogues’ Discussion series on Well-being on the Academic Campus. The series has provided many different angles on the relationship between design and wellness (as I previously covered last March) and today, Alex Lickerman delivered a lasting impression with his look into his program at the University of Chicago on resiliency – a skill he says is not one we’re merely born with, rather one that can be developed.

Before I recap more of Lickerman’s presentation, I must note that it was strengthened by the context of the discussion prior. Together, the room of about 50 attendees firstly agreed that the leading communal health issue facing college students is mental. Students, both college and high school, deal with more stress, anxiety, and depression today in the social media age.  To give some context, one of many metrics comes from Newsweek, who cited this year that, “according to the American College Health Association’s most recent annual national survey, 30 percent of college students reported feeling ‘so depressed that it was difficult to function’ at some time over the past year.”

We then heard a retail perspective from one of the three panelists, Denise Scarpelli, Market Pharmacy Director of Walgreens about how the pharmaceutical giant has revamped their store design since 2009, holding local focus groups to guide design decisions to improve the well-being of consumers and employees with, for example, healthier meal choices near the entrance. The second panelist, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair, discussed how our city is implementing design and technology to further establish a hierarchy on the streets for pedestrians first, noting 1.5 million Divvy bike rides in the past year alone (and imagine if we didn’t go through Chiberia.)

This discussion of looking at wellness through retail and urban context was then driven home to the individual through Lickerman’s talk of how resilience can be learned. He offered insight into one of the ideas promoted and available to University of Chicago students: the Acceptance & Commitment Theory (ACT). The theory, in essence, encourages facing feelings of pain with acceptance rather than evasion and then work with an improved ability under this awareness to achieve one’s goals.

Think to yourselves, how much energy does it take to avoid pain? It works, but Lickerman says it’s that substantial suppression that is the issue. For example, the anxiety that many young adults feel when asking a girl out is easily minimized if you just avoid the pain by not asking her out (this example may or may not have hit home to me, hah!) But now with Lickerman’s program, students are learning at a formative age to be aware of these feelings and act toward them instead of away. This is a life lesson that I feel we all learn at some point, as evidenced by a resonating feeling within the room of “Wow, I wish I had something like that in college!”. It’s true though, and that’s why we all had the “light bulb moment” recalling a personal experience in our own minds of when we faced pain head-on and grew from that action. After all, Lickerman said studies have shown an increased ability to achieve goals with the approach of facing feelings with acceptance, which thereby increases your resilience to deal with life’s undoubted obstacles with each experience.

Lickerman hopes for an improved integrated space at the University of Chicago that combines counselors and medical personnel together so they can more easily share intel, while still working individually. The design would also directly effect the well-being of the student if it also provides a comfortable and inviting environment, a point Choucair noted as the first emphasis of the city’s various Public Health initiatives.

It is gratifying that companies, cities, institutions, and architecture firms like all of the above are progressing with a focus on the relationship between design and well-being. In fact, it is mindsets like these that make a powerful, yet broad proclamation from none other than Kanye West earlier this week that “the world can be saved through design,” reign true. If you take something out of this post, hopefully you too can feel the support of change happening in future designs for the benefit of your well-being. Or an added awareness to accept and withstand pain, and then diffuse its emotions in your next action. Or the knowledge that one time in college, I didn’t ask out that beautiful girl. I’m sure something will stick (ideally, the first two points.)

The panelists (left to right in the photo):

Alex Lickerman, MD Assistant Vice President for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago and author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self (Read a sample chapter! I like how it starts.)

Denise Scarpelli Market Pharmacy Director at Walgreens Co. leading Walgreens pharmacy operations and sales strategy for nearly 250 locations in Chicago

Bechara Choucair, MD Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health and a champion of key initiatives that promote healthy living environments across Chicago