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Color Your World for the Life You Want to Live

Surface colors can be your friends, or not.

Key points

  • Blood pressure levels are often higher in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.
  • Science can make your time in the paint aisle much more pleasant.
  • Certain colors can energize or relax, "boost" strength, or help people feel more optimistic.

Blood pressure levels are regularly high in the paint aisles of home improvement stores as tense shoppers ponder what colors to paint their kitchen, family room, kids’ bedrooms, etc.

Neuroscience can help people distressed by all those color choices. Colors can:

  • Relax or energize. To make it more likely that people will feel relaxed in a space, make sure it features colors that are not very saturated but relatively light—colors like pale sage greens; subtle, smokey blues; or dusty oranges calm viewers. To rev people up, say in an exercise area or a laundry room (not many of us want to spend extra time with laundry), use colors that are saturated but not too light, like Kelly greens or sapphire blues.
  • Influence how brains work. Seeing the color green has been linked to enhanced creative thinking, so it’s probably a good choice for a painting studio, writer’s nook, or home office. Looking at the color red has been tied to degraded analytical performance, so it’s a good idea to keep it out of home offices, study areas, etc. Less saturated and relatively light colors put us in just the right mood to do knowledge work.
  • “Boost” strength. We get a burst of physical strength from seeing the color red, so it’s probably the best color for a wall you’ll look at while weightlifting or doing something similar.
  • Create the impression that people are friendly. People seen in front of warm walls are thought to be friendlier.
  • Help us feel more optimistic. Women looking at surfaces that are pink feel a little more optimistic than those who aren’t.
  • Increase appetite. Looking at warm colors can make us feel hungry, which can be a good or bad thing. If you’re always trying to get kids to eat, a breakfast nook painted a warm color may be in order.
  • Influence how large a space seems. Lighter colors make walls seem a little further away than they actually are, while darker colors create the impression that they’re slightly closer—so if you’re painting a room that would be a little more pleasant if it seemed to be a different shape (e.g., it seems very long and narrow with the original paint job), choose accordingly.
  • Change perceptions of temperature. Warm colors on walls make a space seem physically warmer, and cool colors make it seem cooler. Using a warm color on a sun porch that’s drenched in lots of tropical sunlight is probably not a good idea; try a cooler shade instead.

Also good to know:

  • Across the planet, people’s favorite colors are shades of blue, so if you’re selecting colors for someone else or plan to sell your home soon, choose them.
  • The least-liked colors worldwide are yellow and yellow-green, so be wary of using those hues in the same situations.
  • We link the color blue to trustworthiness, dependability, and competence, so it can be a good color for the wall that’s behind you during Zoom sessions.

Science can make your time in the paint aisle much, much more pleasant—and it much less likely that you’ll need to visit it again soon because a new color “is just not right.”


Kenneth Fehrman and Cherie Fehrman. 2000. Color: The Secret Influence, Prentice Hall; New York.

Frank Mahnke. 1996.Color, Environment, and Human Response. Van Nostrand Rainhold; New York.

Joy Malnar and Frank Vodvarka. 2004. Sensory Design. University of Minnesota Press; Minneapolis.

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