In September, after months of barely leaving our close-quartered Harlem apartment, my boyfriend and I moved into a new place in Brooklyn. We signed the lease having seen photos online, but without ever visiting ourselves, and were pleased with the high ceilings and the new appliances. But the apartment had some quirks we hadn’t anticipated. There were bright blue cabinets and mismatched geometric light fixtures. We were surprised that some of the apartment’s weirder elements in the photos—a massive chalkboard and one very long, very salmon pink wall—hadn’t been removed or painted over before we moved in.
But once we got settled, I noticed something strange: I’m happier here, noticeably so.
Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist and the principal at the firm Design With Science, could think of a few reasons why that might be the case. “Does it have more natural light?” she asked when I told her how I was feeling about our new home. The answer was yes. “Natural light really perks up your mood and does great things for your brain in terms of cognitive performance,” Augustin said.
Augustin also asked if I could hear more sounds of nature in the new place (definitely, since the old one was next to a fire station), and about the colors on the walls (the salmon has grown on me). “That’s a visual experience… [but] people forget about their other senses. Sound, smells, the natural light—people take them for granted,” Augustin said. “There are all sorts of things you wouldn’t think about.”
Our living spaces can affect our moods, our psychological well being, and our work performance. We know this intuitively because we’ve experienced it. Maybe you work more creatively in a coffee shop than in a silent room, or favor a particularly sunny desk in the library, even if you couldn’t explain why. Now that we’re all home a lot more than we used to be, we’re paying attention to how we can better make our space work for us.
Millions of Americans are already taking steps to make their homes happier. In August, the country’s housing market hit its highest level since 2006, with suburban markets particularly hot. Home renovation projects are also on the rise; one Bank of America survey found that 70% of homeowners were taking on DIY projects during the pandemic. Accordingly, stock prices for Lowe’s and Home Depot have skyrocketed, rising 157% and 96% respectively between March and December (outperforming the 50% rise in the overall S&P 500, according to the Motley Fool).
Experts like Augustin, whose work sits at the intersection of design and psychology, offer insight into the science-backed ways to make our homes into the warm, relaxed, and productive places we all want them to be—especially when so much of the world seems like it’s anything but.
From psychologists like Carl Jung to philosophers like Martin Heidegger, great thinkers have long grappled with the role that home plays in our lives. In many ways, questioning how to craft a happy home is fundamental to who we are as human beings.
Ironically, the psychological impact of the space we live in tends to be something that most people take for granted. As children, the layout or design of our homes was often not in our control. Once we are old enough to start deciding how our homes should feel and function, we often don’t have the money to make our spaces truly what we want.
Most people spend their lives in spaces that are simply good enough, and don’t always understand how that can affect their happiness. If and when they can move into a space they like and functions for their lifestyle, they may forget how deeply non-visual sensations, such as touch and smell, influence their feelings.
“Our social and personal interactions aren’t happening in a vacuum, they’re happening in space,” says Lindsay T. Graham, a psychologist at the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley. “Our spaces don’t exist without us. If we are a reflection of our space, it also kind of starts on the inside.”
The scientific field now called environmental psychology—the interplay between the spaces people inhabit and their psychology—really started in earnest in the 1940s, Augustin says (back then it was called architectural psychology). There’s even a division of the American Psychological Association (APA) devoted to it. In recent years, the field has expanded to other aspects of the built environment, such as the design of retail settings, hospital facilities (pdf), doctors’ offices, or consumer goods.
It’s hard to tell whether there truly is growing research interest in the intersection of psychology and design, or whether the field is merely getting more attention as the byproduct of pop culture interest in home design. From renovation shows like The Repair Shop and Fixer Upper (really, everything on HGTV), to real estate indulgences like Netflix’s Selling Sunset, we’re getting glimpses into home spaces we might never have otherwise. The popularity of wellness and design gurus like Gwyneth Paltrow and Marie Kondo respectively show us that our homes can be a place for self improvement, within reason.
For those who are paying attention to how spaces make us feel, there are other reasons for the current focus and interest in creating happy homes. It might be borne out of the modifiability we’ve come to expect by curating our online experiences to match our personalities. “Everyone is talking about wellbeing and wellness and how we make people better. We’re at a point where we can think beyond mere survival,” Graham says. “We now have that ability to look around more deeply. We’re living longer and can think about more than just existing, we have figured out how to build this space.”
Some elements of an appealing home are universal, embedded in our psyches because of how we evolved as humans. And though it’s not always easy to isolate these elements in experiments, researchers have designed studies that can show that a particular change to a space can have some kind of effect on its inhabitants. One such element is what researchers call “visual complexity”—or clutter to everyone else.
“When we were a really young species on the savannah, we had to continually review the environment, to look around all the time or something would eat us. And we look around all the time now,” Augustin says. “We developed in a space where there was something going on, so we don’t want to be in a place that’s too stark, but also not in one with too much going on. When there’s a lot going on visually, all that looking around takes more effort.”
There are all sorts of equations that can help researchers determine the right amount of clutter for our visual field, but an easy rule of thumb, Augustin says, is to look at spaces designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, which are generally considered to have the desired “moderate visual complexity.”
“There’s a themed set of colors, the patterns in use in the window glass, maybe in the wood are relatively similar shapes, there’s some concept of planning, maybe symmetry,” Augustin says. “If you look for a minute at residential interior design by Frank Lloyd Wright, then look around where you are, you can make a comparison between where you are and the photograph.”
Usually that will mean giving some things away or hiding them from view so that you aren’t overstimulated; if you have 20 framed photos on a windowsill, for example, Augustin suggests hiding 15 of them and periodically rotating which ones are displayed.
Other elements of a space shown to make its inhabitants happier include ample natural light, visible wood grain, and smell. Different arrangements of artificial light can signal to occupants what a space should be used for, since overhead light is useful for productive spaces, while warmer light from table lamps makes people feel more cozy and relaxed.
Wall color can also play a role—light colors can make a space feel bigger, while saturated or dark colors make a large space feel more cozy or intimate. When people meet Augustin for the first time they almost always ask her what color they should paint their home office, to which she answers a light green. Green has been shown to boost creativity and a pale, non-saturated hue can help make the space feel bigger (past studies indicate that white (pdf) or neutral wall colors (pdf) are often the best bet for workplaces).
It’s not just the design of the home that can affect how people feel in it—its physical layout plays a role, too. For 20 years, Christopher Travis has owned and operated the architecture and design firm TrueHome Designs, working closely with clients to remodel their high-end homes. Despite the cultural ubiquity of “man caves,” it’s not just men who need private spaces—women need them too, he notes, to have private spaces away from partners or kids. “It’s about intimacy and privacy. Turns out that’s a really big deal… that people have a space they can retreat to, and that encourages the rituals people want to repeat during the day to bond,” Travis says.
Travis recalls one couple who, at the start of the design process, insisted that they had spent the years of their marriage sharing a sink and so felt no need to expand their bathroom to include two sinks. But, after Travis questioned them a bit more, he learned that the couple was fighting every morning over the sink, particularly when the husband refused to clean up after shaving.
Of course, changing aspects about your space can’t fix everything. Working from home, difficulties with childcare, a lack of privacy, isolation—the pandemic has put pressure on people even in the best living situations, especially during lockdowns. A new or revamped space can’t make that go away, but it can help. Making a space work better for you, paying attention to details that can make the home a soothing place to be, and ensuring that each individual has a place to retreat into some privacy can help ease some of that tension and stress—even on a budget or without moving.
“People get so used to non-workable conditions, they just suffer through it and survive, that’s just the way it is. And it occurs to them, ‘Maybe there’s a way where I don’t have that experience because of how my house is designed,’” Travis says. “It affects almost every client I get… ‘We’re actually working on my life being better. I’m going to feel different in these spaces, the way I want to feel.’”
It’s harder, though not impossible, to discover your own emotional architecture without the guiding hand of a professional. If you’re looking for a redesign of a space and not a complete remodel, a slate of design apps can help you envision your dream home with new decor, furniture, and paint.
Graham cautions people tackling home improvements to try to set aside taste, and instead focus on how you want a space to feel and function. “What I wish for people, myself included, is to disentangle that desire for something to look a certain way because we think that’s what we want versus what we feel or need to be feeling,” Graham says. “You should gravitate towards the things that make you feel good or a specific way that you’re needing.”
Reflecting yourself in your space also helps visitors—when people are able to come over again—understand your values as an individual or as a family, and relate to you. For her doctoral thesis, Graham went into about 100 couples’ homes to try and establish how much of each person’s personality she could detect in the space. Couples seemed happy as long as they both had their personalities on display (though she does recall one experience in which a couple’s home felt off and she wasn’t quite sure why. She later learned that the couple divorced).
My partner and I have taken a number of steps to make our new home the happy place it’s become. We have art from friends on the walls and a little nook with a handful of photos of us. We picked out and bought new furniture that allows us to enjoy cooking and watching TV together. Most importantly, we’ve created areas that are expressly our own. We have spaces where we choose to be together, and space where we choose to be apart.
As the field of environmental psychology develops, researchers will surely find names for that quality that makes homes happy. “Homes provide an informative context for a wide variety of studies examining how social, developmental, cognitive, and other psychological processes play out in a consequential real-world setting,” reads one 2015 editorial (pdf) calling for more research, of which Graham and Travis are both authors. Augustin thinks there’s more room to discover how cultural backgrounds affect what people expect from their space.
In the shorter term, though, while we’re all stuck at home, there are plenty of ways to make your home work better for you. Instead of thinking about everything that’s wrong with your space, or trying to detect whether your bad mood is a cause of some aspect of your home, instead do as Augustin suggests: “You should always be thinking about your physical environment and how it can do the most it possibly can to help you live the life you want to live.”