29th April 2020
This blogpost is being written in Lockdown when many people may be bouncing off the walls of their home, figuratively speaking (unless you have a very interesting personal life, let us know in the comments), but what we’re talking about today is relevant for any moment in time, because we are looking at how your domestic environment can sway your mood.
How you move around your home, and how you design your home can have extraordinary effects on how you feel. We all sort of know that - you may for example notice that you feel a bit sunnier when you see a bunch of daffs in a jug on your windowsill, or that you want to commit a physical felony when someone you live with leaves dishes/dolls/diggers/dog food lying around despite repeated notice given to the contrary.
But these are more than just emotive reactions, they are based in an ever growing field of environmental psychology, and show that a few shifts in the domestic realm could reap a whole lot of positive results. We’ve done a lot of reading (so you don’t have to) and here are 7 of the easiest to adapt findings (and some shopping ideas) - whether you’re planning a new side return, or just want to spruce up what you’ve already got, at minimal cost.
This is home decor x neuroscience.
If you’re working at a table, desk, or on your sofa, the optimal condition for productivity is to have a focussed, bright light within your workspace and at your work level, with less light around the edges and a cooler tone to your bulb.
If you’re looking to relax then low level overhead and perimeter wall lighting with warm tones are optimal. Watching TV or looking at a phone screen in a darkened room is about the least relaxing thing you can do for your brain.
The focus of jumping blue light with the static blackness of the perimeter sends your brain into the neuro equivalent of whack-a-mole.
(Also, sidenote, if you have trouble sleeping you shouldn’t be looking at any screens within at least the hour before you head off to bed. Have a bath, read a book, oil your cuticles - anything but watching that extra episode of Tiger King.)
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Curved edges are more relaxing for your brain than sharp edges. This is because curves take less cognitive effort for your fovea* to process than sharp angles. Research on corners (yes it’s a thing) conducted by the Barrow Neurological Institute found that the ‘perceived salience of a corner varies linearly with the angle of the corner.
Sharp angles generated stronger illusory salience than shallow angles.’
Which means that the sharper the corner, the brighter it appears, and the brighter a corner, the harder it is for our eyes to look at. So basically, our eyes feel calm when they look at circles. Assuming you can’t remould your exterior walls and live inside a cylinder, and if the only circular thing in your home that comes to mind is your toilet seat, you might want to think about adding the odd round cushion, mirror, vase, candle or side table.
*fovea - the pit inside your retina that provides your clearest vision
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3. BE OBVIOUS
If you put things where you can see them, you are more likely to use them.
This is called Choice Architecture. You might also know the phrase ‘Impulse Buying’ which is related. The seller is making the choice, the buyer is acting on impulse.
This the reason that 45% of Coca Cola sales in the US are made from displaying bottles in end-of-aisle racks near the checkout at supermarkets.
If we bring Choice Architecture into our own home, we can be both the provider and the consumer. If you are trying to eat healthily, put a bowl (also a calming circle shape, tick) of apples in the middle of your kitchen table or counter and you are far more likely to grab one for a snack than if they’re hidden at the bottom of the fridge.
Also you’re more likely to eat them if there are only apples in the bowl.
Too much choice (hmm banana? do I fancy a pear? can I be bothered to cut up the melon?) and you end up distracted, so you bypass the lot and go for your easiest, and usually less healthy, option instead. Similarly, if you are working from home or trying to meditate or sorting out your ‘everything’ drawer and you do it in a room with a great big TV in it, you are 500 times more likely* to put the screen on to accompany your task, and then end up taking three times as long to complete it, or to ditch it halfway through.
Making good choices ahead of exercising the impulse will help to keep you on a positive path.
*this is not an actual statistic but we all know it’s true
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4. HOME FLOW
No we aren’t talking about calling in sick because of a period. We are talking about the rhythm of your home and how, by having a clear path through your house, you will release endorphins and feel calmer and more hopeful. We all know that clutter can be a stressor, and tidying up can feel like the last thing we want to do at the end of a day, but if you can wake up in the morning and walk from one room to the other without encountering a hostile object (used plate, Lego vehicle, clothes that need to go in a drawer) then you have set your day up with the aspiration of flow.
And if you happen to walk into the kitchen and see, if not a beautiful English country garden, then at least the jug of daffs on the window ledge, you are also living the Biophilic dream (see below) which will also lift your mood.
The thing you must not do though, is to ‘hide’ everything the night before because you can’t be bothered to tidy. That will likely cause you more stress than leaving it all out, because then you will start to accumulate and you’ll have to go full Kondo on the place which will take you weeks.
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Variety of texture and colour is vitally important to mood. Even if you’re a diehard minimalist, mixing and matching a bit can significantly improve mood, because variety of design makes your brain think about nature, and when your brain thinks about nature, it is happier. Colin Ellard, a well renowned Canadian experimental psychologist, conducted a study where he walked a group of subjects wearing bracelets that monitor skin conductance (to show physiological arousal) past various store fronts in Manhattan’s lower east side. When the subjects walked past the well known quirky clothing store fronts and restaurants, their bracelets demonstrated physical excitement, but when they walked past the block-long Whole Foods store frontage which is all monochromatic smoked glass, their arousal and mood states took a nosedive. They became cognitively disengaged with their surroundings, which in turn led them to feel less hopeful and less motivated than when they had walked past the vibrant, colourful and textured frontages of the smaller stores.
Which is ironic, given that the food in Whole Foods was likely far more nutritious and desirable than the food in the restaurants that they had passed, but that it had put them off of a healthier choice because of its facade.
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6. BECOME BIOPHILIC
No it’s nothing odd. It means ‘a love of nature’. Biophilic design has been having a moment of late in workplaces and restaurants. Biophilic design seeks to increase your connection to the natural environment in order to balance your mood and reduce stress. A University of Michigan study found that its subjects’ memory and attention increased by 20% after one hour in a natural environment - the effects were similar to that of meditation and the subjects didn’t even need to be outside, just being surrounded by a natural feeling environment improved mood and productivity.
So essentially, you want to be getting some houseplants in.
Or if your outdoor space is viewable from your house and currently looks like landfill, it would be a good idea to start sorting it out.
Also, keep any windows that look out onto a natural viewpoint as clean as possible, and keep blinds up or tie curtains back to maximise the natural light.
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7. SIGHT AND SMELL
Natural colours are well known to be great as a basis of a room’s colourway - they create feelings of space, height, nature and calm. If you’re aiming to enhance a space further, then you want to be looking at brighter and less saturated colours for relaxation (such as sage green), or for something energising then less bright but more saturated colours are the way forward (like royal blue or scarlet red).
To complement those vibes with a scentscape, jasmine and hyacinth are known to lower anxiety and lemon is a good one for cognitive and mental tasks.
We also apparently behave more generously when we are in an environment that smells clean to us. Not sure what to do with that one, except maybe don’t offer anyone a pay rise when you’ve just bleached the loo…
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If you’d like to dig into this further, links to the research points are below:
Colin Ellard study:
Clean Smells study:
Choice Architecture: https://medium.com/10x-curiosity/helping-people-make-better-choices-nudge-theory-and-choice-architecture-431a3a40b688
The Psychological Impact of Light and Colour:
How A Place Makes Us Feel, author Sally Augustin PHD:
An Hour In Nature Study:
TedMed Talk: Using Biophilic Design to Heal Mind, Body and Soul https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAmbZCtNC9U
And a bit of Marie Kondo because she’s just so in control of her life: