Light and space are said to be vital for mental wellbeing. Here psychologist Patricia Murray looks at how the design of our homes can affect our mood
Interior design is no longer the preserve of the elite. Even the most modest young man moving into his own pad now has an eye for the visual aesthetic. You don’t need a bulging wallet to want to splash out on interiors these days. Window dressing is a topic of conversation for people who can barely dress themselves. Every Sunday, 600,000 of us tune in to scream at the television, as yet again another know-it-all couple argue with architect Dermot Bannon on RTE’s Room to Improve.
Why all this renovation madness? Why do you open Move each week to read the property section, or want to be surrounded by certain textures, colours and furniture styles?
Ireland’s obsession with home decor most likely took hold at some point in the 1980s. Feng shui, the much-maligned home improvement trend of that decade, based on a Chinese system, opened up a route to interiors not based on our mothers’ taste — or even purely on visual appeal — but on rules. This often meant bypassing what one might chose aesthetically in the service of some ancient custom or order.
The most memorable aspect of feng shui was how boring conversations explaining its “logic” could be. Couples trying to be cool were the worst afflicted. Should this chair go here or upside down halfway down the garden? Plus, the rules were too hard to follow in Irish bedsits, flats and three-bedroom semis.
Looking back, feng shui served us well as it brought to our unschooled perceptual sensitivity an appreciation of form and function. It opened the sunset-facing door to the benefits of placing things where they are most useful.
According to current research coming from psychology labs, there’s much more to home arrangements than the look. The reason for our obsession may be down to something deep within the recesses of the brain.
How we set out our stall, so the story goes, not only influences how we (believe we) stand in the broader social space we inhabit — impressing our friends, in other words — it also affects our mood. We remove any sensory irritants: colours we don’t linger over, textures we don’t like, noises, light, temperatures that distract or annoy us.
According to John Bargh, a social psychologist with Yale University, we all have an internal, subconscious comfort-antenna. Thus, our psychic space reflects — or seeks to reflect — the outer arrangements of our environment. So, how we think is related to the space or environment we are in, and this is done within some coded system. Not feng shui.
In psychiatry, research has found positive results for light therapy, both natural and artificial, on depressive illness. Exposure to the natural environment — gardens, rivers and mountain scenes — has often been used, both formally and informally, to lift the mood of those who find themselves depressed, where the illness is not severe.
Even for those without mental health issues, environment matters. Studies have found that light has a significant effect on mood. The amount and wavelength of light affects the different functions of the brain, including influencing the regulation of a person’s thoughts and feelings. So the brighter the house, the happier we may be.
Perhaps we are seeking these simple adjustments to our homes, then, to self-improve, rather than to home improve.
Recent work goes further. The lust for the larger window, the theory goes, serves a further function. It’s not just for the view, or even for the light, that we prefer floor-to-ceiling windows over smaller ones that frame the views. We like them because they allow us to take in a wider view, which allows our brains to benefit more from nature.
Bargh, and others carrying out this research on the effect of the environment on behaviour and attitude, hold that our love of higher ceilings is not simply aesthetic, either. The higher ceiling space overhead is symbolically represented within our mental space.
The higher ceiling space overhead is symbolically represented within our mental space
Studies show that people feel empowered when in high-ceilinged spaces, or facilitated to make slower, better informed, more considered decisions than those in rooms with lower ceilings. He suggests that the physical space above our heads in rooms is mirrored inside our heads, so we feel more space in our brain to ramble around with our thoughts.
Bargh’s work is considered controversial because he suggests that these automatic processes influence our social behaviour through increased or reduced aggression and politeness, as well as our orientation to others in terms of liking and disliking them and trusting or being suspicious of them.
For instance, one of his studies holds that when you expose youngsters to images of old people, they walk slower and talk slower. So you can prime them using various cues. He says that aspects of environment automatically do this. So it’s nothing to do with where you are from, but what you are surrounded by.
The dearth of exact explanation on the mechanisms involved make it contentious. The idea that the environment is a prime for socially good or bad behaviour is not new, however, but bringing it down to the layout and contents inside the home to such an extent is.
According to Anthony Buggy, of Dublin-based interior design group Think Contemporary, people don’t merely want to be on trend when seeking interiors advice, they are looking for something more; not just the aesthetic, but some magical extra thing they cannot name. Maybe that’s where the missing link lurks — and can orthodox design provide it?
“People are looking to put their own stamp on their spaces. They want the interior to reflect their personality, by mixing what they have gathered over the years and adding some statement pieces. The space needs to be functional, personal and comfortable. People want their interior to be sustainable, suiting their lifestyle,” says Buggy.
Much research has been done on the effects of room temperature on human behaviour and choice. Being in a warm, comfortable physical environment evokes “warm” psychological experiences and people who rated a room as comfortably warm also showed significantly more positive behaviour, and increased trust in others, including generosity, than those who rated rooms as less optimum. So if you find yourself being mean to your loved one, maybe it’s down to your house being too cold.
Massive cosy sofas in show homes are not just there to evoke wealth and luxury. If seating is arranged to suggest conviviality and closeness in a living space, it can prompt people to believe this is the case.
So if you’re new to this whole house-sharing thing, and are finding TV remote sharing tough, then perhaps you should get creative and think abstractly. Crank up the heating, pull down the blue blanket, stare up at those high ceilings and wander over to the large floor to ceiling windows and see what happens.
The author Alain de Botton contends, in his book The Architecture of Happiness, that “it is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be”.
So we seek to be reflected in our homes, as the inside trickles out to the trees and nature noses in from the outside. While the size and location of a house may indicate the status of its owner, however, many subtle elements of the interior space can have a more meaningful and lasting effect on the quality of the lives inside.