Imagine if you had to describe your best friend. What would you say? That he is generous, or conscientious, or charming, or honest?

In this view, each of us possesses engrained characteristics. Your best friend is always generous, and he never lies.

Despite what happens in life--despite where we live or whom we marry--our traits run deep. They were there from the beginning. And as anyone who has taken the Myers-Briggs tests knows, it's satisfying to think that we are not a random bundle of quirky habits but a harmonious collection of fixed traits.

It doesn't take much experience in life to realize how flawed this view of human nature is. We're honest with our friends, but lie at work. We're diligent at work, but lazy around the house. How we act in the office is not how we act at home with our spouses, and it's certainly not how we act at the bar with our friends.

Who we say we are is even influenced by external stimuli we don't consciously notice. People on the sunny side of a city street will, on average, report higher levels of well-being compared to people in the shade; when we wear "powerful" clothes like a suit, we're more aggressive. Personality isn't fixed. It's context-dependent.

How dependent? In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design (now out in paperback), Charles Montgomery writes about the overlooked relationship between urban design and the science of happiness. Although we think that city planning is about efficiency, transportation, and economics, Montgomery shows that it is also linked to wellbeing and misery. From the trivial (planting more trees) to the more consequential (replacing a 6-lane highway with a bike path) smart urban design has, in many cities around the world, correlated with a reduction in crime, pollution, congestion, and a boost in wellbeing. The environment defines us and not the other way around.

There are two great insights from Happy City. They're not directly related to business, but the parallels are easy enough to see: Where we work and who we work with influence how we work.

Can You See Trees From You Window?

Hospital patients with views of nature need less pain medication and get better faster than those with views of, say, brick walls... Dental patients get less stressed out on days when nature murals are hung on the waiting-room wall. Students do better on tests when nature is within visual range...

When... researchers began examining police records, they found a mountain of hard data that linked lack of greenness of courtyards to local crime rates. Buildings that looked out on trees and grass experienced about half the violent crime level of buildings that looked out on barren courtyards...

A study of Los Angeles revealed that people who live in areas with more parks are more helpful and trusting than people who don't, regardless of their income and race. Nature is not merely good for us. It brings out the good in us.

Suggestion: Buy a plant and place it next to your work space. During breaks, take a walk in the closest park.

Design Space That Encourages Collaboration

[William] Whyte's disciples employ a method he called triangulation, in which external stimuli are arranged in ways that nudge people close enough together to begin talking. In its simplest form, triangulation might mean positioning a public telephone booth, a garbage can, and a bench beside one another, or simply giving a busker permission to perform near a set of stairs--anything to slow people down in proximity...

There is a message for all city makers here. It is that with the right triangulation, even the ugliest of places can be infused with the warmth that turns strangers into familiars by giving us enough reason to slow down... Something happened because something was allowed to happen, a rare condition in cities dominated by automobiles or overregulation.

Suggestion: If you're an office manager, arrange the water cooler or eating areas strategically. If you're an employee, go out of your way to interact with people in different departments.