The Scottish liberal economist and philosopher Adam Smith once argued: “To feel much for others and little for ourselves, to restrain our selfishness and exercise our benevolent affections, constitute the perfection of human nature.” While we may have come some way since the 1700s, selfishness is still viewed by many as one of humanity’s ugliest traits.
Yet with the rise of mindfulness and the burgeoning self-help and life-coach industry, the view towards selfishness—more palatably referred to as "self-care"—is changing, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
One of the main tenets of mindfulness teaches us that in being compassionate to others, we should also be compassionate to ourselves. The theory goes that it is much easier to be kind and loving to others if we are first kind and loving to ourselves.
Acts of kindness to ourselves do not need to be grand gestures. They can be as simple as cooking a wholesome meal and taking the time to enjoy it, spending twenty minutes reading a novel, or allowing ourselves to get an early night, despite that looming deadline.
However, most architects would probably admit they don’t adhere to this mantra in any shape or form. We work late nights, often unpaid. We produce hundreds of drawings to get to one final plan. We treat ourselves with no compassion while we pay our projects or, on occasion (but certainly not always), the client unwavering attention. Many of us know a colleague that cares more about brick details than their own mental stability. They come in early, leave late and don’t stop for lunch, all to ensure that a building’s inhabitants will truly never find the movement joints, no matter how hard they look.
There is a strong argument to be made that the masochistic philosophy of the architect is born at University. A friend of mine who is currently undertaking her Master's degree recently told me how students were working until 5 am—in the first term—as nobody wanted to be the first to leave. She went on to explain that she felt like she was “in a blender, trying to not to let my feet touch the blades at the bottom.” When I lecture at universities, the general feedback I hear from students is that they don’t believe they are good enough, and are far, far more critical about their own work than they ever would be about anybody else’s. Unkindness towards ourselves starts at this nascent stage of our careers.
This lack of self-compassion permeates every aspect of our lives. We make ourselves miserable. We sleep badly—if at all. We don’t eat properly. We see less of our family and friends than we should. Where I work in the UK, 38% of architects under 30 say that mental health is their biggest workplace concern (according to the AJ Life in Practice Survey), and with 52% of architecture students having received or worried they will need to receive help for their mental health, this trend is set to continue in the coming years.
Furthermore, there’s little evidence to show that spending more than 40 hours a week working offers much benefit in terms of productivity. When staff regularly exceed this, sickness rates increase, happiness drops, and motivation decreases. An estimated 49% of working days lost by UK businesses each year are a result of work-related stress. Regularly working 60-hours weeks is therefore not only bad for us, it doesn’t make any sense in terms of productivity or output—a problem that the British economy continues to battle with.
So, it seems that the time has come for us architects to take on board some of the lessons of self-care that mindfulness teaches. 2018 must be the year that we as architects and students take lunch breaks and see more of our friends and family. Let’s leave the office before our boss does. Let’s be happier, and let’s be more selfish. I doubt our designs will suffer because of it.
Ben Channon is a Senior Architect and Mental Wellbeing Ambassador at Assael Architecture. He recently founded the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum in the UK and runs the Twitter account @MindfulArchi. He is also currently writing a design guide on architecture and mental wellbeing.