Decades of environmental psychology research has taught us that everything around us is critical to our mental health, and that nature plays an especially powerful role in making us feel good. Clinical studies have shown that natural light can significantly improve the health of people with depression and anxiety. Likewise, cluttered spaces can lead to elevated cortisol levels in the body, which can lead to stress and depression, but also make us more prone to mistakes and succumbing to our impulses. A 1984 study published in the journal Science found that surgery patients recovered better in rooms where they could see trees rather than brick walls.
It all seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget. The main goal of fields such as architecture and design is to create pleasant and functional spaces for their inhabitants, but these principles are not always fully embraced.
In fact, there are some simple and straightforward adjustments you can make to make your home a better space for your mental health. They’re not just for spreading plants, but they’re also tenant-friendly and don’t require a big budget or the freedom to tear down walls.
The rise of biophilic design
Natalia Olszewska, an applied neuroscience researcher in architecture at The Center for Conscious Design who helps create spaces that focus on mental health, explains that we should consider some biological principles when creating spaces, such as the need for natural light and greenery . But she added that it would take a while for architecture and design to meet those needs.
[Related: Best twinkle lights of 2022]
Biophilic design is a new understanding of the importance of natural elements in home design. Meaning “Love of Life”, this architectural trend sees nature as a stage in our evolution as a species and integrates this relationship into the spaces we inhabit. Biophilic design scholars say it’s one of the most effective ways to create spaces that benefit our mental health.
“Our brains haven’t changed much in the past 200,000 years or so. Our bodies haven’t changed much — we’re still basically the same species,” says architectural psychologist Michal Matlon, who works with Olszewska Work at The Venice Letter, a mental health and design newsletter. He explained that our brains and bodies have evolved to adapt to the natural environment, and we need to build spaces that reflect that. It’s not just about how they look aesthetically, but how they stimulate our senses.
Prioritize natural light
In nature, light is one of the most constant resources and is vital to us. We need it to regulate our metabolism, produce essential nutrients like vitamin D, and maintain a good mood.
That’s why light is one of the most important elements when designing our homes. According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, access to sunlight can improve sleep quality and mental health. Another study published in the same journal in 2020 showed that participants who were exposed to natural light scored 42% higher on cognitive assessments than those who were not exposed.
If you own your own home and have the resources, you can increase the amount of daily sunlight by adding some roof lights.But something as simple as opening the shutters or curtains every day can have a huge impact, explains architect Ben Channon, author of happy design. Even just moving your desk under a direct source of natural light can improve your performance and creativity.
“We know we need natural light, but there’s also a lot of talk about circadian lighting,” Mattlon said.
Several studies have shown that avoiding artificial light as much as possible at night, especially blue light, has a positive effect on our sleep cycle. It’s also a simple adjustment, Matlon said. You can buy smart light bulbs and set them to dim automatically in the early evening, or you can look for special blue light-reducing bulbs to make sure the light around your home—especially bedrooms and living rooms—is warm. Introducing smaller task lights or zoned mood lights can help focus lighting only where you need it. Bouncing light off surfaces like walls or filters, rather than pointing it directly at something, can also reduce the overall lighting in the room and get you ready for bed.
You may also want to recreate the vitality of light in the outside world. Olszewska recommends trying to find lamps that mimic the effect of light passing through a canopy or the reflection of flowing water. Likewise, it makes sense that sunset lights are all the rage on the internet.
But it’s not just greens and blues that mimic trees and oceans, Olszewska says. Since the idea is to bring the outdoors in, the color you choose will depend on the surroundings of your home – this includes urban design, but also the location of the place.
“You want to create this correspondence between the exterior color and the interior color because you want to reconnect with the exterior,” she said.
Monochromatic palettes can also help your surroundings remind you more of nature, says Amber Dunford, a design psychologist at Overstock.com. More nature means better mental health. In the design world, a monochromatic palette means not just one hue, but a family of colors that are close to each other, such as orange turning yellow.
“Monochromatic spaces have a calming effect on humans because the transitions of color changes are more subtle and easier to experience,” she said. “While contrasting colors like red and green create a vibrant effect, a monochromatic palette creates a soothing effect.”
It’s not just the color you paint the walls with, it’s the hue of everything, or at least the main element in the room. Start with fixtures like a rug or sofa, then layer in smaller elements like pillows, blankets and artwork in similar shades, says Dunford.
Don’t be afraid of patterns
It’s easy to think that using a natural monochromatic palette means moving to an aesthetic that you consider bland or boring. But nature is full of patterns and intricate fractals, and Channon points out that research shows that recreating them at home can help reduce stress by up to 60 percent.
“Visual complexity is needed because we don’t like boredom,” Channon said.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2019, even just looking at pictures of nature can relax you as if you were looking at a real natural landscape. If you don’t want to hang photos of oceans and forests directly on the wall, an easy trick to satisfy your need for visual sophistication and naturalness is to use patterns of leaves, wood or water.
Introduce natural textures
No natural environment is completely smooth, so you can experiment with texture by adding rugs, curtains, and furniture. You can also blur the lines between outside and inside by introducing exposed brick and concrete. But adding wood grain, even in small amounts, is the ultimate trick to bringing that outdoor feel into your home.
“Living around the grain of wood can provide the same stress reduction response we experience in nature,” Dunford said. “These surfaces provide a feeling of warmth and safety, and are often described as more comfortable and welcoming than other textures and materials.”
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed that touching wood grain can calm activity in the prefrontal cortex and activate our parasympathetic nervous system, leading to relaxation.
If you already have wood furniture in your home, consider sanding to remove paint or glossy finishes to expose the natural wood, Dunford says. She also recommends finding wood and using it as an accent throughout the space.
“A simple arrangement of branches in a vase or a large piece of bark can be an accessory when paired with other items on the shelf,” she explains.
You can also introduce small pieces like carved wooden bowls, wooden frames, or larger elements like wooden coffee tables or furniture with wooden arms.
Get it done with organic shapes
You’ve never seen a rock that’s completely square or a tree that’s completely straight, which is why using a few odd shapes around the house can help remind your brain that it’s from its natural habitat.
“You can buy furniture like coffee tables or side tables that might be curved like stubs,” says Channon.
Pretty circles can do the same.
Stimulate all your senses
“Whenever you’re outdoors, you’re fascinated by what’s going on because all your senses are activated,” Matlon said. “So, let’s focus not just on what you can see, but also on what you can hear and feel.”
Large spaces with echoes can be distracting and alienating, Matlon says, because echoes are usually absent in nature. Instead, use textured and acoustic materials such as rugs and upholstery to absorb echoes. You should also consider incorporating natural sounds into your space—a small tabletop fountain can easily provide the song of a babbling stream.
Likewise, technology can now simulate natural acoustics. Recently, Matlon noticed that his air conditioning unit had the option to simulate a natural breeze, as if a window were open, pushing air unevenly in at different angles. “The air feels more natural and comfortable,” Matlon said. Of course, not everyone’s air conditioner can do this, but you can try a white noise machine, or even an online platform or smartphone app, to add a little natural vibe to your space.
Every room has a role – even the hallways
Try to separate the space where you sleep and rest from the space where you recreate and work. Shannon says this helps your brain stay in the right mood to do what it needs to do.
But transitional spaces, like hallways or entrances, are also important. They’re often forgotten and overlooked, but can serve as an important point to restore your focus and find peace between areas of your home, Olszewska says.
[Related: 5 great spots for LED strip lights around your home]
For example, transition spaces can help you transition from workdays to relaxing evenings.
“Corridors or passage spaces can be a great opportunity for us to restore our cognitive resources,” said Olszewska, who pioneered bringing corridors to the heart of architectural design. In her research published in the Journal of Science-Informed Design, She analyzes the role of the Japanese garden as a transitional space for a spiritual recovery area.