How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
Upon relocating to Milwaukee from New York City last year, I bought my first house — a 120-year-old fixer-upper. I was thrilled, but there was one feature that bothered me more than anything else on my list of items to repair or replace: the off-white color of the walls.
After years of renting low-budget apartments that were drowning in neutral tones, I ached for brighter hues, and not just for aesthetic reasons.
As someone who’s struggled with depression and anxiety for 15 years, I frequently notice the positive and negative effects that color has on my emotions.
Blue makes me feel calm, too much red makes me feel tense and agitated, and monotonous whitewashed colors — like the ones on the walls of my former flats — make me feel uninspired or even glum.
So, I headed to the paint store with one simple guiding question in mind: What colors made me feel happy?
Color’s effect on our mood
As it turns out, I’m not alone in having strong responses to color. While we don’t always think of interior design as something related to our well-being, research shows that color can affect our mood, energy levels, and choices.
THE POWER OF COLORColor scientist and consultant, Leslie Harrington, PhD, states that even when we’re not consciously thinking about the shades of our surroundings, color can still influence us, especially if it’s a bold, saturated hue.
“Color can absolutely impact a person’s behavior and the way they think or feel,” Harrington states. “When you walk into a red, pink, or blue room, we can see measured impact on heart rate, for example. It’s an involuntary bodily reaction.”
Still, no one experiences one hue exactly the same way. Harrington notes, “From a psychological standpoint, not all of us have the same associations with different colors.”
In fact, our varying perceptions of color are formed through universal, cultural, and personal experiences.
Red is universally associated with love, for example. Also, every country maintains unique cultural traditions with color: South Koreans wear white to funerals, while many Western cultures wear dark colors.
PERSONAL COLOR ASSOCIATIONSWe all have our own intimate experiences with different hues. I associate pastel yellow with my grandmother’s house, and befittingly find it comforting.
There isn’t one “right” shade for everyone even if they share similar traits, like depression, anxiety, or other health issues. Still, given that the study of the psychology of color has existed for decades, there’s some general consensus.
As early as the 1880s, Florence Nightingale discussed the importance of implementing varied and “brilliant” colors in hospitals in order to improve patients’ moods and health outcomes.
Several decades later, in 1950, color expert Faber Birren wrote about how some blues and greens can act like sedatives, or even be hypnotic.
And in the 1960s, researchers painted rooms in prisons across the country with a lucid shade of pink in order to study its effects on inmates. The color, later named “Baker-Miller Pink,” was shown to reduce aggressive and violent behaviors, as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Harrington tells us, “Typically speaking, warm colors tend to be more uplifting and cool colors tend to be more calming.”
Although these responses are subjective, creating an emotionally-healthy home through color choices is catching on as a design trend.
Even celebrity and model, Kendall Jenner, embraced color psychology by painting a room in her home with Baker-Miller Pink, citing the research that it’s both calming and suppresses appetite.
Where should you begin?
“The most important thing when designing a room is to think of the emotional response and experience that people want themselves or a visitor to have,” according to Harrington.
Painting the walls with brilliant color memories
Just as Harrington suggests, I considered the primary function of each room before selecting paint samples for my new (old) house.
A luminous turquoise color not only reminded me of the coral I’d seen once while scuba diving in the South Pacific, but it instantly made me feel joyful and inspired. I decided to use it for my living room, where I like to read and converse with friends, as well as for my office, where I do all my writing.
A sunny apricot color felt energizing and fun, so I used in the area of my basement where I work out. I also picked out a dark, relaxing blue to use in my kitchen, where I like to unwind while cooking or baking after a long day.
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Although I kept some of my walls in more neutral tones, I felt a noticeable difference after I emptied my last paint can. The highly saturated colors made me feel safer, warmer, less anxious, and — most importantly — happier.
You don’t have to paint! Color therapy on a budget
Still, while I’ve found my depression and anxiety have been somewhat alleviated by painting my walls and ceilings, adding color to your home or apartment doesn’t need to be as dramatic, or as expensive, as a large painting project.
Once you identify which colors make you feel more joyful, relaxed, energized, inspired, or whatever feeling you’re searching for, these hues can be introduced in a number of ways.
Keep a vase of bright yellow flowers in areas you like to sit in, buy vibrant decorative pillows, or just swap out your faded armchair for, say, a royal purple one.
When choosing to re-color your living space, Harrington recommends that you always return to personal experience and instincts.
Color design trends come and go: Think of the brown wood-paneled living rooms of the 1970s or the olive green-tiled bathrooms of the 1960s.
But the feelings that a color evokes are less likely to change. Especially if they’re powerful enough to make you feel like a calmer, more inspired version of yourself.