Pre-pandemic, it would be hard to imagine spending as much time as we do now in our homes. Our maxed-out spaces must function as offices, remote schools, gyms and all-day cafes (not always the chic kind). If these walls could talk, they would tell tales of togetherness but also boredom, frustration, and burn-out.
In the early 20th century, Swiss theorist and psychiatrist Carl Jung proposed that the home is powerfully symbolic—and psychologically significant. Far more than shelter from the outside, our homes are a reflection of ourselves, our identity, he argued. How we construct this space is, therefore, closely connected to our inner narrative and mental state of mind. A large body of modern research supports this idea, laying the foundation for environmental psychology, or the study of how the built environment influences our mood and behaviors. Surprisingly, everything from how you arrange your sofa to how much sunlight filters through your rooms can have an impact on your emotional and physical health, whether you’re aware of it or not.
“Our homes can be incredibly important tools for shaping our daily experiences,” says Lindsay T. Graham, PhD, a research specialist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley, CA. “How they’re organized, decorated and furnished can be curated to evoke a varied palette of feelings,” and she adds, “serve as a form of emotional regulation.” Greenwich, CT-based interior decorator Kate Gelfand has studied the healing potential of public and private spaces and finds that our interior worlds can truly “aid recovery and healing, and work to support wellness and personal growth.” Consider it decorating therapy for the 21st century. Here, seven research-backed solutions to boost your health and happiness and turn your home into a restorative sanctuary for you—and those you share the couch (and laundry duty) with.
Size Up Your Surroundings and Fix What’s Broken
First, honestly assess what you like and don’t like about your space. Make a specific, actionable plan to tackle the problem areas, which can save your sanity. In a well-known study, researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles asked working families to film self-guided tours of their homes. Participants who dwelled on things that needed fixing—such as unfinished projects, repairs or chaotic areas—had weaker recovery of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, at the end of the day compared to those who described their homes as restful and relaxing. Interestingly, this finding did not apply to the men in the study, only the women who historically “have been socialized to be feel more responsible for the upkeep of the home, even in a partnered relationship,” says Darby Saxbe, PhD, the study’s lead author and director of Dornsife Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California. When the housework and improvements pile up, Saxbe explains, your domicile represents a source of demands, rather than a haven from the outside world. If you need to hire a pro for tricky projects, do it: It’s money well-spent if it eliminates mental stress.
Get Clutter Under Control, On Your Terms
Mess can really, well, mess with your psyche. Why? Seeing piles of stuff everywhere overstimulates your brain, making it work harder and draining your resources, says Saxbe. “Clutter is a nagging visual cue of all the things you have to do, which taxes your stress response system.” To control the jumble, deal with items quickly in the moment—hang up coats, keep or chuck school papers, put laundry in drawers—rather than let things accumulate until the end of the day (or week, month…). There’s also nothing wrong with visually hiding clutter that can’t be totally eliminated, says Saxbe. Store work papers in a stylish filing cabinet or use a chic, paneled screen to conceal an office nook so you’re not thinking about stacks of expenses during dinner or before bed.
Decorate With Intention
Color therapy (or chromotherapy) has long been practiced as a form of holistic healing, focused on how the spectrum of light and color affect mood and physical health. Granted, it’s not an exact science since perceptions of color are often influenced by past experiences and cultural references. But, in general, reds and oranges have the longest wavelength, which requires the eye to adjust and stimulates the body. Blues and greens, on the other hand, require very little adjustment, and are considered more restful (blue, in particular, has been shown to lower blood pressure). You can “level out” the energy in your house accordingly, but keep in mind that everyone finds different tones soothing, says Graham, who points out that comforting spaces are often reconstructions of our past. You might unconsciously be drawn to colors that remind you of well-loved places—such as the pastels tones in your best friend’s bedspread. Pay attention and work these details into your space for subtle inspiration.
Arrange Furniture to Encourage Socializing and Bonding
It’s remarkable how we can live in shared quarters with others but not actually talk or connect that much. Maybe everyone is sick of each other (enough family time!) but the layout of your space can also steer people together or apart. Researchers point out how chairs on the porch facilitate “emotional expression” (otherwise known as chit-chat) and inside, modular furniture that can be rearranged—into an L-shape or tête-a-tête configuration, where two people face each other with their own backrests—invite conversation, says Gelfand, who recommends interchangeable sectional sofas by Living Divani. Or consider Yogibo’s body-confirming chair, which makes it easy to plop down and catch-up, wherever people feel like gathering in the house.
Light It Up or Down
Adjustable lighting is “essential” to a happy home, says Gelfand. Basking in the natural rays is great, but you can overdo it—research shows that rooms with too much sunlight are actually stressful for office workers (who are now likely WFH). Instead, opt for solar shades or airy linen curtains—stylish, modern options let in light but reduce glare—and floor lamps with arms that can be articulated to swivel 360-degrees and dimmed to reflect your lighting preferences. The bulb matters, too—but not just the wattage, says Sarah Barnard, a Santa Monica, CA-based, WELL and LEED accredited designer who specializes in environments that support wellbeing. “Look at the kelvins, which are printed on the box and measure the color temperature on a scale from 1,000 to 10,000,” she says. A bulb with 2,700 kelvins will create a cozy, inviting ambiance (great for the kitchen, living and bedrooms) while 5,000 kelvins mimics crisp daylight (and is best for task lamps, for example).
Be Generous with Carpeting
Hardwood floors might appeal to your minimalist aesthetic, but science favors plusher surfaces. In a small study, researchers in Japan measured brain waves of subjects and found that those who walked on carpet versus wood experienced more restful alpha waves, indicating that carpeting might alleviate stress. Another reason to go cushy underfoot: Carpets absorb noise, which can buffer the acoustics of any interior. In a soon-to-be-published study, Graham found that in an open-office setting, people who identify as extroverts are more stimulated and distracted by noise—to the point of it being “detrimental to productivity”—compared to introverts who are bothered by noise but can tune it out, she says. You don’t need to go wall-to-wall at home, but Gelfand finds people often don’t think big enough. “Most of your floor should be covered by the carpet, your furniture should be fully on it, and in a bedroom, it should extend up to your bedside tables so your feet hit a soft surface when you get up.” As for textures, Gelfand prefers natural wool or a mix of jute and chenille for maximum comfort.
Create the Great Indoors
Forest bathing—or the meditative practice of being surrounded by trees—is a proven health booster. Specifically, breathing in the phytoncides, or aromatic oils released by trees, can aid immunity and decrease anxiety, among other positive outcomes. You can also reap the benefits by bringing nature inside: Pipe in forest-y scents, incorporate furniture and décor with salvaged or responsibly-sourced woods, and go for botanical or earthy artwork—scientific evidence shows that merely looking at nature scenes can lower stress. Barnard, for her part, designed her own Kale Tree line of wallpaper and furnishings inspired by flora and fauna; and potted plants of all kinds—from monstera deliciosas to parlor palms—are therapeutic on many levels.
Allow Evolution and Imperfection
In the end, don’t get so caught up with the Instagram of it all, or the need to make every room impeccably styled and unrealistically perfect, that you forget a simple fact: A restorative, healing home is defined by how you feel when you live inside it, says Saxbe. Also, adds Graham, spaces should evolve along with the inhabitants. The décor, layout or arrangements you have now might not suit you in a few years, so it’s healthy to reassess your surroundings and make changes every so often. Nothing needs to be forever or permanent, which can take the weight of decision-making off your shoulders and, literally and figuratively, create space for you.