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The Surprising Effect of Color on Your Mind and Mood

Your guide to which colors will make your mind pop

Helder Almeida/Shutterstock
Source: Helder Almeida/Shutterstock

It’s spring (finally) and all over North America people are trudging purposefully to the store to pick out the colors they’ll use to repaint rooms in their homes. (Throughout the winter, their yen to pick up a brush has been curbed by their inability to open the windows to air out newly painted rooms.)

So now that windows can be opened, what colors should those who are planning to paint select? What have scientists learned about how our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by the colors we see?

The most important thing to know about colors, and our emotional response to them, has to do with colors’ saturation and brightness. Saturation is how pure a color is. Less saturated colors are more grayish, so khaki green is less saturated than kelly green. Brightness is, as you’d expect, basically how light a color seems. Colors that are less saturated but bright, such as a bright sage green, are relaxing, and those that are more saturated and less bright, such as sapphire blues, are more energizing to look at.

Colors are called “warm” (reds and oranges) and “cool” (blues and greens) for a reason: When we’re in a space where the walls are painted in warm colors, we actually feel that the temperature there is warmer than we do in similar spaces painted cool colors. This makes warm colors good options for a vestibule in a cool climate—the temperature inside the building will seem even more comfortable as people enter from the cold—or in a room that’s hard to heat. Cool colors are good choices in entryways to buildings in warm climates, and in rooms that have a tendency to be warm, perhaps because of sunlight flowing into them.

We are drawn to warm colors, such as reds and oranges, so they’re good colors to put at the end of a longish hallway or to use to draw people toward a particular section of a large space.

Putting a light color on a wall makes that wall seem a little further away than it actually is, while darker colors on walls make them seem slightly closer than their true position. So you can use colors to change the apparent shapes of rooms—for example, pulling in the far walls of a long thin space. You can make places where lots of people will gather, such as family rooms, seem larger by painting the walls light colors and make bedrooms feel cozier by painting the walls darker colors.

Rigorous research has also revealed the special “powers” of particular colors:

  • Green: Seeing the color green has been linked to more creative thinking—so greens are good options for home offices, art studios, etc.
  • Red: People seeing others in front of red backgrounds generally find those other individuals are more attractive than when they see them silhouetted against other colors, so reds are great for a bedroom wall. Having a red surface in view also gives us a burst of strength, so reds are good choices for home gym areas, etc. Seeing red has been linked to impaired analytical reasoning, though, making it a bad option for offices.
  • Violet: People link a grayish violet with sophistication, so it can be a good selection for places where you’re trying to make the “right” impression.
  • Yellow: Using yellow in a home can be problematic. Many people dislike the color, so if you have a lot of yellow rooms in your home or a yellow front door, you may be advised to repaint to get the best price for your home should you sell. An exception: Many people use yellow in kitchens—with no negative sales repercussions. Yellow may be accepted in kitchens because warm colors stimulate our appetite.
  • Blue: People are more likely to tell you that blue is their favorite color than any other shade. That makes it a safe choice. Seeing blue also brings thoughts of trustworthiness to mind; always a good thing.

Use color—don’t opt out and live in a beige world. Humans are more comfortable in spaces with color than in those without. A beige world is understimulating—and that can be stressful.

Stride purposefully into your local home-improvement store and color your world.

More from Sally Augustin Ph.D.
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