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Finding happiness at home

Being at home has made us focus more on making the space ours.

Published
Illustration by Andrea Daquino
  • The big idea

    We’re paying more attention than ever to how we can better make our living spaces work for us.

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  • Brief history

    The scientific field now called environmental psychology—the interplay between the spaces people inhabit and their psychology—really started in earnest in the 1940s (back then it was called architectural psychology). 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.

    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 natural byproduct of pop culture interest in home design. From repair shows like Fixer Upper (really, everything on HGTV) or Repair Shop, to real estate indulgences like 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 born out of the modifiability and personal fit that come with how we curate our online experiences to reflect our personalities and make us better.

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  • By the digits

    70%: Estimated number of US homeowners who took on DIY projects during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020
    34%: How much people reported their happiness increased when people made their homes happier through home improvements
    157%: Amount that stock prices for Lowe’s skyrocketed between March and December
    1994: Year that “Home and Garden TV” launched. HGTV’s primetime shows rank among the highest in the US in terms of viewership, after news networks like Fox and CNN.

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  • Fun fact

    Elements of a space shown to make its inhabitants happier include ample natural light, visible wood grain, and smell. 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 Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist, 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.

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  • The big question

    Should you go solar?

    Whether solar is “worth it” for your house depends on the roof’s orientation (south-facing catches more sunlight), size, and other physical factors. The more sun-friendly the roof, the more power the panels can produce, and the better chance the system has of meeting the most important criteria: Whether the monthly cost can beat your typical utility electric bill (most homeowners with solar will still have to pay a small fee to their utility in order to stay connected to the grid for times when the panels aren’t covering the full electricity demand). Read more about the factors you should consider in this piece.

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  • The healing power of gardens

    Gardens are good for our health and well-being, so it comes as no surprise that Covid-19 has inspired a revival in gardening, with many people working out their anxieties in backyard plots, potted plants, or herb-lined window sills. Confined to our homes with limited avenues to connect with others, seeing something blossom in our immediate surroundings is one form of home improvement guaranteed to provide a measure of happiness.

    Landscape architect Clare Cooper Marcus, who has studied how gardens affect hospital patients, offers some expert tips about how to make home gardens work best for you.

    🍅 Grow plants that appeal to our senses—that smell good, or that you can pick and eat

    😎 Create some spaces in the sun and others in the shade

    🌱 Plant herbs like parsley or basil since they’re easy to keep alive, and can be used for cooking

    🧘 Don’t worry about growing prize-winning petunias. Focus less on how a garden looks and more about how it makes you feel.

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  • Charted: Big tech companies are competing to build the smart home of the future

    Amazon, Google, and Apple are investing billions of dollars to develop devices that today regularly lose them money. Today, they hold some market power as a way to search the web or buy products. But the companies are really betting big on the future; smart speakers are expected to be a future-dweller’s main point of contact with their automated home. The firms are betting that the gadgets will become the conductors of a symphony of devices that run our future homes, and important gatekeepers for consumers’ search and shopping habits. Read more about the companies’ race for smart speaker dominance.

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  • Person of interest

    As spring turned to summer last year, Hong Kong faced a mounting mental health crisis. Schools and offices had been closed on and off for months, and people were spending more time than ever cooped up at home. The stress was exacerbated by months of political protest.

    Image copyright: Design Trust
    Design Trust co-founder and executive director Marisa Yiu.

    Marisa Yiu thought she could help ease some of mental strain. In May, the architect launched an open invitation to designers to try their hand at designing a homemade prototype, small enough to fit on the palm of one’s hands, to better help people cope with the pandemic’s stresses.

    “The ‘Critically Homemade’ project has taught me how the design community can both make really practical objects, as well critique the problems of society, and provoke us to think more. I think this has taught me about reassessing values: how do we use materials, how do we spend time with family, how do we protect our elderly?” Read more about the project, and Yiu’s advice for budding designers, here.

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  • Quotable

    “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. 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.”

    —Lindsay T. Graham, a psychologist at the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley

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