Among the items that my husband and I keep on the desk next to the computer monitor in our study, there is a metal nail file. If I notice that the pointy end of the file is facing toward me while I’m sitting at the computer, I pick up the file and turn it around. Having a sharp object pointing toward me seems disturbing, even though the file has never actually poked me. I expect many people in our modern culture would dismiss this as a neurotic worry, or perhaps wonder if I have an obsessive need to arrange things in particular ways.

But according to feng shui—the ancient Chinese art of design—avoiding sharp objects in one’s environment is both a natural response and an effective way to improve one’s mental health. Sharp objects or corners pointing toward a person are called “secret arrows,” a phrase that refers to the subconscious disturbing effect they have when they go unnoticed. When something sharp in a home or workspace gives the impression it might cause injury, it leaves people subconsciously feeling that they need to be on their guard. This can cause anxiety to build up over time.

Feng shui designers recommend being careful, not only about the placement of sharp objects on desks and tables, but also about the corners of the desks and tables themselves. If a piece of furniture has a sharp corner positioned in such a way that it might bother a person looking at it, moving the furniture or placing a houseplant or other harmless object in front of the corner is advised. Even sharply angled corners of nearby buildings can be secret arrows; when this happens, interposing a tree, a fountain, or another landscaping feature can help to create a more relaxed feeling.

Although some aspects of feng shui may simply be old superstitions or otherwise unsuited to our modern society, I believe there is merit in the basic premise that how we arrange our physical environment affects how we feel about our lives. Rather than adopting the view “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” and forcing ourselves to put up with small irritants in the belief that doing so improves our coping ability, we might do better to arrange our surroundings in ways that leave us feeling more at peace and refreshed.

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