What do funeral parlors, prison cells, and courtrooms all have in common? Other than being places you’d probably rather avoid, they’re all examples of spaces that use color, texture, lighting, and room layout to evoke particular emotional responses from their occupants. And it works.
Although it’s a far less extreme—and solemn—example of this, the interior design and decor of a home can also influence mood, emotions, and overall mental health of its habitants
“Our ability to find physical comfort and visual inspiration in our home is vital to our well-being,” says Noel Gatts, interior designer and a host of HGTV’s Home Inspector Joe. “Universal comforts—like shelter, privacy, natural light, running water, and clean air—are important for every body and mind. The ability to surround ourselves with home spaces that speak our love language is a bit trickier to master.”
While it’s a topic that’s been getting more attention since the beginning of the pandemic—when people were spending far more time at home than usual—much of what’s been written about the link between our home space and our headspace has focused on the mental health benefits of decluttering. For many, cleaning, purging, and organizing are necessary first steps toward creating a space that supports their mental well-being. But what about after the clutter is gone?
That’s where decor and design elements enter the picture and work their magic. Here are some expert pearls of wisdom and science-backed strategies for making your home a place that lifts your mood and supports your mental health.
Prioritize emotional safety.
Whether it’s locking your doors, closing open windows at night, or making sure you always have a clear path to an exit (and the bathroom) in case of an emergency, you probably do at least one thing every day to keep yourself physically safe in your home. But what about your emotional safety?
“The overall feeling of a space—how it’s organized, how clean it is, how comfortable it feels, how personal you make it—all these things can put you at ease and affect how safe you feel in an environment,” says interior designer Kristen Fiore. “When you’re having mental health struggles or are triggered, you want a place that feels safe and comfortable to be who you are. That’s why it’s so important to have your home reflect you, and be comforting and inviting.”
Surround yourself with friendly faces.
While we’re on the subject of emotional safety, and the importance of filling your space with decorative objects that make you feel secure and at-ease, let’s talk about family photos.
“Maybe you want an abundance of frames filled with family members, because surrounding yourself with images of loved ones will make you feel happy and less alone,” says interior designer Michal Rubin. “Or, on the contrary, perhaps frames with family members will negatively affect your mental health. In that case, opt for botanicals and decorative objects.”
There’s no rule stating that you must have a certain number of family photos on display in your home at all times. Family relationships are complex and unique, and if images of anyone or any particular time prompts a stressful response, then let it go. This is your place to feel comfortable and content. You can always display photos of friends and chosen family, or other people whose visual presence makes you feel calm and secure.
Choose colors based on your ideal energy level in a room.
If you’re serious about creating a home that fosters or maintains a specific mood, you’ll want to be intentional about the hues you choose.
Factor in both the practical (how you’ll use a particular room) and the ideal (how you want to feel while you’re in it). “Consider the energy level you wish to achieve in a space before committing to a color scheme,” says Amber Dunford, a design psychologist and style director at Overstock.com. “When contrasting colors (which sit opposite each other on the color wheel) are used—especially those with more warmth and saturation—the more energizing [a room] feels. Colors with less variation will give you the opposite effect, creating a more serene and quiet atmosphere—which is especially true for cooler colors.”
Finally, when choosing colors, factor in the size of the room. “In smaller rooms where space is limited, using cool colors can also allow us to mentally ‘push back’ a wall or object, since these colors psychologically recede,” Dunford explains. “If you’re hoping to create coziness in a larger space however, warmer colors are great as they mentally advance, making them feel closer to us.”
Add a healthy dose of nature.
Although the connection between spending time in nature and better mental health—and the research backing it up—is nothing new, the concept really took off during the early days of the pandemic, as a way to make the homes many people were cooped up in seem a bit more liveable.
“We tend to feel more creative and relaxed when surrounded by plant life, so potted plants can be an especially important element if your windows don’t include views to the outdoors,” Dunford explains. “Bringing nature indoors where possible is a great and inexpensive way to help a space feel warm and cozy. Placing live plants in baskets, planters, decorative pots, and arranging them with various heights soften corners and add life to a space.”
Adding potted herbs to the kitchen is another practical way to bring in nature, she adds, and as a bonus, “the fresh scents activate one of our five senses.” Plus, you’ll have bright, fresh herbs to cook with all year long.
Don’t want the hassle of having to keep plants alive? According to a few studies, keeping fake plants—or even just pictures of trees and other greenery—can also make a space feel more calming and reduce stress levels. The same can be said of nature-inspired design choices, like painting a room green or incorporating wood (more on that later).
Incorporate visible wood grain.
“Wood grain has been shown to have a positive impact on lowering our stress levels, while also increasing our well-being and performance levels,” says Dunford. “This makes a good case for working visible wood grain into your home design. This can be achieved through coffee or side tables, butcher block counters or your home office desk.”
The good news is that it’s the look of wood grain that makes the difference, so it’s totally fine to achieve that look artificially, using something like wood veneers.
Factor in flow.
Consider the experience of moving around within and passing through your space. According to Gatts, this means positioning your furniture in a way that creates comfortable movement and flow.
“Lines and curves create visual movement, so experiment with your space, taking your preferred traffic patterns and focal points into consideration,” she says. “Try pulling some furniture pieces away from the wall to create comfortable gathering areas and more open flow.”
She also recommends carving out functional work, play, and rest areas in a room, in a way that makes sense for how you use the space.
Remember your pets.
Pets have a special place in our hearts—and our homes—with study after study confirming what many people already know: Pets can have a deep, positive impact on mental well-being. Knowing this, it makes sense to consider them when designing or embellishing a room.
“Pet-friendly vignettes are incredibly popular,” says interior designer Debbe Daley. Take a home workspace or office, for example: “Having a chair or bench in an office space for your pet to hang out with you offers calmness when working. The ability to be able to take a break, regroup, and spend some petting time with your furry friend significantly assists in the daily stresses of working from home.”
Amplify the natural light.
Whether or not you’ve personally experienced seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression, you probably know that exposure to natural light can have a major impact on our mood, sleep quality, and overall mental well-being.
Most of us aren’t in a position to start knocking down walls and adding more windows to our home (especially the renters out there), but we can maximize the natural light we do get. “A quick fix for spaces with limited space or lacking natural light, is to place mirrors on walls across from windows,” Dunford says. “The light will reflect the view and make your space appear brighter and larger.”
Another way to increase the amount of natural light at home is to “choose lighter paint colors that reflect light, rather than darker colors that absorb it,” says interior designer Joshua Smith. “The same goes for choosing lighter furniture and décor pieces as well.”
Finally, if it’s possible, layer your window treatments, so you have options beyond simply a light-blocking curtain covering your window, or no curtain at all. “Natural light helps us regulate and lift our mood, so window treatments that adjust or allow for light to enter is a helpful addition,” Dunford says.
Use artificial light with purpose.
Not every room is blessed with a decent amount of natural light, and no amount of light-colored paint or mirrors is going to change a boxed-in space. Plus, most people don’t go to bed as soon as the sun sets, so even if a room has natural light galore, that’s not going to help at night.
“If natural light is scarce, look for bulbs that mimic daylight and choose translucent shades to amplify the light,” Gatts says. “Try to gather various levels of light in each space, taking care to include task lighting for functional use, and ambient lighting to create the right feeling at the right time.”
Gatts is a big fan of using dimmers whenever possible, so you have the ability to adjust the light based on your needs and mood—because “mood lightning” is a real thing. “We have more intimate conversations and self-disclose more under warmer light sources, so be sure your lighting scheme leans towards the warmer end of the spectrum,” Dunford explains. “Somewhere around 2700 Kelvin is typically a nice range to be in.”
Soften the space with textures.
While much of the focus on interior design is on a room’s appearance, don’t forget about the power of our sense of touch. “We’re tactile creatures and respond well to soft fabrics and textiles,” Dunford explains. “Using a variety of textures in your space will soften architecture and dampen sound, so adding throws, pillows, rugs, curtains to a space helps it feel cozy, calm, and inviting.”
If you have hardwood floors, Daley suggests “adding a plush faux-fur area rug that you can sink your bare feet into, [and] provides an ‘ahh’ feeling when walking across the room.”
Dabble in dappled lighting.
Textiles aren’t the only way to soften a room: lighting can also make a big difference. “Humans prefer to be under dappled lighting, which is the same light you might experience when the sun shines through leaves on a tree,” Dunford says. “Incorporating elements that replicate this into your home, such as basket-weave light pendants, or lamps can create the same glow as the dappled lighting you’d find in nature.”
In addition to being another way to bring aspects of nature indoors, dappled lighting also brings dimension to flat surfaces in your home, creating beautiful shadows and adding softness to walls and floors, she explains.
Don’t overthink everything.
At the end of the day, these tips aren’t rules—they’re just ideas the pros (and even some science!) have found to be beneficial for boosting mood and supporting well-being through design and decor. Let them inspire you, not control you. This is especially important for people with perfectionist tendencies to keep in mind, as it could be tempting to go overboard with the research, get overwhelmed by having so many options, and then put off the project indefinitely.
“Don’t make this a big project,” Daley says. “No stressing: This is supposed to be fun.”
Whether it’s a larger redesign project, or you’re simply perusing Etsy for new throw pillow covers, don’t lose sight of the reason behind the refresh: Creating a home that lifts your mood and makes you feel safe and comfortable.