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Kittens, Cacti, and a Blue Glow: The Science Behind a Perfectly Productive Cubicle

The environment we work in plays an important role in our ability to get things done.

Decorating your office is about more than just showing your style. Turns out, the objects that surround your desk can play an important role in boosting your on-the-job focus, energy, and overall happiness. Here are three quick and easy ways to spruce up your workspace with science.

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Use potted plants to make you happier with your job—and your life

If workdays have become a joyless slog, maybe it’s time to grab some greenery. A 2008 study published in the journal HortScience found that workers who were in the proximity of plants tended to be happier with their jobs and their overall lives.

“If folks had access to plants, they rated their job satisfaction—and overall life satisfaction—much more positively than folks who didn’t have any plants,” said Tina Cade, Ph.D., a professor of horticulture at Texas State University who worked on the study.

The difference even spreads to how well we get along with our officemates. Research subjects who tended plants saw a benefit in their satisfaction with co-workers and intraoffice communications, making plants a potential antidote to an overly political workplace. Cade credits the effect to what is known as the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that people feel more comfortable around other living things.

The researchers also looked at the effect of having windows in your workplace and found that, while the windows predictably provided a boost in job satisfaction, this effect was really only noticeable in women. In fact, the group with the highest overall job satisfaction score was men who had access to plants but had no windows. Both men and women without access to either were, by far, the least satisfied.

“You definitely don’t want to be the person with no window and no plant,” Cade says. “Out of the hundreds of people in the study, they were the only ones who were completely miserable or dissatisfied with life and their job.”

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Look at adorable images to boost your focus, but beware of overdosing

If the Internet is good for one thing, it’s cute pictures. And while you may think of Web searches for "kittens falling asleep" as wasted time, a team of Japanese researchers found that looking at these images can actually help you focus on a task.

In the study, published in 2012 in the journal PLoS One, researchers at Hiroshima University studied the effects of looking at super-cute pictures of baby animals—or kawaii, as such images are known in Japan. They found that doing so immediately prior to tackling a variety tasks significantly improved performance.

“Cute things are not only fun to see, but also effective for better performance in a certain task,” said Hiroshi Nitono, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at Hiroshima University. “Viewing cute kawaii pictures of young animals narrows the focus of attention and improves the performance of tasks that require careful attention.”

Amazingly, the study suggests that the positive effects may be specific to ultra-cute baby animals. The study found that exposure to puppies and kittens produced a noticeable improvement over looking at not-quite-as-cute adult dogs and cats, or images of delicious-looking food. According to Nitono, this is likely because cute images induce a positive emotional state with what he calls a “strong approach motivation,” which narrows our focus so we can more closely examine the object at hand. When you stop looking at the cute image, this attention-focusing effect lingers long enough to use on another task.

Before you plaster your office with pictures of the cutest things you can find, Nitono warns that actually looking at these images while you’re trying to work can be distracting, and the effect is best utilized through a quick look prior to tackling a task. Nitono suggests actively looking at the cutest photo you can find for about one to two minutes before beginning a specific task.

“Having cute things at the working place can be beneficial for mood and motivational management, only if the cute things are out of sight during work,” Nitono says. “A cute wallpaper on the desktop is harmful for performance because it captures attention and can be distracting."

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Channel blue light for an energy boost 

You probably know that looking at gadgets before bed can keep you awake into the wee hours. The short, blue-hued wavelengths of light that come from digital screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, suppressing the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and subsequently making it difficult to go to sleep.

But the same up-and-at-’em effect that is so annoying at night can be used as an energy boost during the day—or by shift workers looking to stay alert after the sun goes down.

“Using relatively bright white or short-wavelength blueish light early in the day can help synchronize circadian rhythms, which may improve cognition,” said Randy Nelson, Ph.D., professor and chairman of the department of neuroscience at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Instead of cranking up the brightness on your computer screen (which may cause eye strain), workers looking for this illumination-fueled jolt—especially those without easy access to natural light during the day—can buy a desktop lamp designed to fight seasonal affective disorder by emitting white and blue wavelengths.

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