How interior design affects mental health

How interior design affects mental health

How interior design affects mental health

The work of interior designers may seem frivolous for some - for instance, people may think interior designers just do pretty things to indoor spaces, or that their work is not essential - that they simply know how to arrange a room beautifully. However, there’s a deeper side to designing people's homes and overall spaces. If we explore the meaning of our spaces and how significant they are to us - in our interiors we keep our loved ones safe, we hide away from the world when we need to, but mostly we express ourselves there. Our indoor spaces are our havens, and we have an emotional and mental connection to them. Discover here how interior design affects mental health, and what aspects to take into consideration to improve your mental health while indoors.

When we look at the Danish principle of Hygge, which means living in harmony with your spaces, we see there’s a pursuit for this emotional connection to our environments. Browsing through Instagram and Pinterest, we experience the continuation of this trend of finding contentment in our spaces. Nevertheless, interior design goes much further than the idea of simply creating comfortable spaces with chunky knits, throws, candles, and alike. In fact, the science of interiors needs to empathetically look at people first, and only then design to meet inhabitants need, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Why we should address mental health in interior design?

There’s nothing more important than your mental health, and modern life can really take its toll on the mind. A stressful job, a lack of “me time” and feeling isolated or lonely can all affect your wellbeing. In truth, many different factors play a role, which is why it’s important to find new ways to improve mental health wherever possible.

It’s estimated that urban population spends around 90% of their time indoors. While we don’t recommend spending that much time inside, we know it can be difficult to get outside for longer. Around eight hours a day is spent at work, then sleeping, eating, inside commercial spaces or in cars, plus unpredictable weather can put a lot of people off leaving the house, especially as we get into colder months. Covid-19 also played its part with many people now choosing not to go out unless they have to.

Due to the amount of time spent inside, it’s important to consider how interior design can help improve mental health. The better we feel indoors, the better our wellbeing. There are many things that can be done to your interiors that will have a positive effect on your mind.

Interior Design and Psychology

Some interior design uses knowledge from psychology to improve emotional impacts of the space. For example, seating around the table instead of in front of the TV to boost communication; opening up some spaces to create a sense of freedom; or bringing in elements of nature to create an optimal atmosphere for relaxation and health.

Although the bond between interior design and our emotions has gained much attention in the last decade, this form of environmental psychology exists for thousands of years now – the Indian Vastu Shastra, the Chinese Feng Shui, etc.

Because of the rise of neuroscience, scientists are doing plenty of research on this topic and finding the most incredible results. They have shown the ability of interior design elements to evoke a positive or negative emotional response in people. These findings open the door to design spaces that consciously manipulate decorative elements with the goal of encouraging creativity, peace, and happiness.

In 2019 for example, the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Brain Science Institute developed an exhibit titled “Space and Being” in an international furniture fair in Milan. It marked the first occasion the emerging science of neuro-aesthetics was front and centre at an influential global design event. In this project, visitors to the exhibit wore special wristbands that measured their physiological responses as they walked through three different room vignettes. It was a data-based method for showing how design and furnishings can influence biology and well-being.

Interior design elements that influence our mental health

There are real psychological effects that can occur from the decor in your spaces. There’s scientific evidence of this, too. For instance, one study found that college students were able to study better depending on the color of their communal hall.

But, it’s not just about studying — decor has an effect on happiness, attitudes, and even your temperature in a given space. So with that in mind, we decided to do some research and gathered the most important aspects to take into consideration when looking to optimize our spaces to improve our health.


How interior design affects mental health

Everything that is designed is man-made, from the Bic biro pen, to the Chrysler Building. Among all designs, there’s a great amount of good design, as well as lots of bad design.

The interesting part is most of us don't really notice good design - you may notice the aesthetics of a room look nice, and you like it, but you don't really notice how you feel about it. On the contrary, bad design is more noticeable as it can be an obstacle in pursuing a necessary function. For example, imagine spaces where you need to squeeze around the furniture to get into a seat, or you’re unable to put stuff away because a cupboard is too hard to reach, or the hazard to trip on a step that is a different height than the others...

To create good design we need to start by looking at how we function in our spaces, and only then, we can understanding what is the most important mission and challenges in this space.


How interior design affects mental health

In a multi-year study of people’s lives at home, the emotional effects of clutter on people stress levels were measured, and they were found to be the same as post-traumatic stress disorder. To put this into context, they found that mothers’ cortisol readings - a stress mental reaction - to the stuff rocked on the floor by their children, was on the same level as soldiers who had first-hand experience of traumas of war.

If we look at it this way, and if clutter is as depressing, then the crippling part of depression where it is hard to find motivation to tackle everyday life situations, is gonna make clearing that clutter unsurmountable, and just like that you're trapped in a cycle of clutter mood until you're emotionally drowning in your own dirty laundry.

The obvious answer that may come to you is to throw everything out there, for a stress free life, however, life is never as simple as that. We live chaotic, messy lives; we will always own stuff and keep them, our children will just leave their stuff everywhere…

We can't alter our lifestyles to suit our environments, that is unsustainable, instead we need to embrace our lifestyle in our interiors - that's better design.


How interior design affects mental health

A sense of spaciousness is the one of the key components to happier places and elevated moods. One study reported that people tend to be more creative in rooms with higher ceilings, and their mood improves. This is not to say, lower ceiling places can't achieve the positive effects of spaciousness; in fact a great way to make the most of your spaces is having systems in place that facilitate organization, tidying, and reward.

Interior designers carefully choose pieces or can work with skilled artisans to build furniture to suit your needs, from the perfect chair to expansive organizational racks that can transform the use of a room. For example, wall-based organization is a great way to free up space on the floor. Light, free-standing shelves in this home office provide ample space for books and objects of meaning and beauty. The floor can be freed up for movement and active use. 

Clean, open homes with minimal clutter facilitate better moods. This sense of openness can be achieved in almost any space with the right room layout, furniture placement, storage solutions, color schemes, organization, and lighting.

One study identified that room organization is a major component of a peaceful, soothing home. Spaces that were easy to navigate and fostered social interaction reduced anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.

In all room sizes, the use of furniture arrangement and the function of furniture pieces contributed to creating mentally healthy spaces.

Balance and consistency

How interior design affects mental health

The most impactful principle of design on mental health is balance which basically means that all the furnishings in the space feel like they belong. When the balance in a room is off or the furnishings don't feel like they belong, it can make you feel uncomfortable. 

This doesn't mean pieces should necessarily match, but instead that there should be a subtle or indirect similarity from one space to the next so that the home appears balanced and cohesive. Cohesiveness is so important because it will help make the home feel united, rather than choppy, as if one room belonged to another house.

Cohesion is important because it makes rooms easier to digest. We’ve probably all had the unpleasant experience of walking into a room that is just too much to handle. More than likely, no matter how that room looked from your perspective, the reason why it hurt your eyes and brain is that it lacked cohesion.

According to Gestalt psychology, even though our eyes are constantly taking in information, our brains try and boil everything down to the simplest, recognizable pattern. Using harmony and unity to create a sense of cohesion makes that initial pattern recognition easy. Our brains categorize those repeated details and similarities much faster than they would if none of the design elements fit together, which subconsciously allows us to be calmer when we’re in the space.

A seamless flow of the elements in the room allows the energy to flow equally seamlessly. And keep in mind, balance should always be more important than symmetry - and these are different concepts.


Light in porch - How interior design affects mental health

A light-drenched room is always joy to experience, but did you know that sunlight also reduces depression? Whether you get your sunlight outdoors or through a window, sunlight is a mood lifter. In fact, more sunlight into rooms can boost happiness. A persistent lack of sun can trigger sadness or enhance anxiety. Sunlight also seems to energize and motivate humans at home and work. In the commercial environment, a study reported that daylight was one of the most critical factors in increasing sales volume in retail settings.

While there have been many studies demonstrating the psychological and physiological benefits of natural light, one study showed that employees with access to natural light noticeably outperformed co-workers without sunlight in their workspaces. Additionally, when people had to work using only artificial light, they also showed a qualitative lack of vitality and showed signs of poor sleep.

When designing your spaces, you need to find ways of introducing as much natural light as possible if you want to improve your mental health. This could mean installing large windows, bifold doors, or skylights, and placing your sofa or desk in a place where you can catch the most light.


How interior design affects mental health

One of the most impactful elements of design on mental health is color, which can alter your mood drastically depending on the main color used in a room.

Just as promoting mental health and clarity through interior design goes back thousands of years, color therapy (also known as chromotherapy or color medicine) is as old as any other medicine, with a history going back centuries. There’s research that points to spectrums of colors even affecting different parts of the body. This means its physical and mental effects are essential.

Researchers and interior designers have continued to review and revise their positions on the effects of color. In addition to psychological traits and benefits attributed to colors, each colors’ saturation and brightness are significant components in their emotional powers. Saturation refers to the pureness of the color. For example, less saturated colors have more grey or black in them. Steel blue is less saturated then true blue.

Brightness is based on the amount of white in the color, or how light a color seems. Bright colors are less saturated. These lighter, pale tones can have a relaxing effect. For example, true red is associated with anxiety, but a pale, blush pink, that is both less saturated and brighter, is a soothing color. Colors that are deeply saturated and less bright, such as an emerald green, can feel intense or energizing.

When referring to colors, people refer to reds, yellows, and oranges as “warm colors,” while greens, blues, and purples are “cool.” These categorizations are not a coincidence. When we are in rooms that feature warm colors, we feel physically warmer. Cool colors make us feel cooler. That’s one of the reasons reds are so popular in the winter, while turquoise and teal are more popular in warm weather.

And of course, each color has associated psychological effects. Decades of research confirm that some colors consistently evoke certain emotional responses, and they are also culturally sensitive.

A biophilic design approach to color is using the natural landscape as inspiration for a cohesive palette indoors - this is a great way of designing more harmonious and biophilic spaces.

Blue Light

To understand why decor makes you happy, you have to also understand how the objects in your room are making you unhappy. It’s not just the aesthetic qualities of the furniture, the architecture, and even the accent pieces in your home that affect the mind. It’s what some of those objects do to us in our most intimate moments. Take light, for instance.

According to an NIH study, blue light — the kind that computer screens, smartphones, and other electronics emit from their screens — should be approached with caution. Less is more, especially at home while in bed. Because of blue light's short wavelength, the focus is not located in the center of the retina — like normal sunlight for instance — but rather in the front.

In simple terms, blue light is bad for you in high doses. Unfortunately, most electronics use it, including that smart phone you’re probably reading this on. Long exposure time to blue light causes a worsening of visual fatigue and nearsightedness. It’s definitely not good in high doses.

Blue light also directly affects your quality of sleep. This explains why iPhones have a Night Shift mode that changes your screen to warmer tones. Most doctors suggest you keep electronics out of the bedroom to use that space solely for rest. So, leave your TV in the living room and turn off your phone before you go to sleep.


How interior design affects mental health

Even the shape of a table or other furnishings could have an effect. Jagged edges and sharp points are design features that, if overused, can cause anxiety.

When people view shapes, a multitude of psychological occur. Each attributing different emotions, thoughts, and perceptions that resonate with our brain–the viewers’ brains. Shapes are the main part of design by choosing the shapes which provoke the desire response, designers are able to influence the way in which people feel about the design and ultimately, how they perceive what the shapes stand for.

A typical living room, for instance, often includes a statement piece like a coffee table with jagged or sharp edges. A table with rounded edges, on the other hand, allows our nervous system to relax.

Plants & Flowers

How interior design affects mental health

Bringing nature into the home elevates moods, and one of the most effective ways to do with is through the use of house plants and flowers. A study concludes that the presence of plants improved concentration and memory retention and reduce stress.

Flowers also provide mood-lifting benefits. In fact, flowers around the home can reduce the likelihood of depression and increase positive feelings. In addition to the aesthetic beauty they provide, flowers have a calming, relaxing effect on people. Of course, flowers are a beautiful addition to any space, but they also make people feel happier.

Natural elements and nature inspired design

How interior design affects mental health

There’s a strong argument that people aren’t suited to being inside for so long. Modern humans evolved from beings that were significantly more in-tune with nature, and the longing for plant life and natural Interior Design elements taps into the primitive aspects of our DNA.

Biophilic design is well known for its effect on improving our mood and wellbeing. 

Studies have found that elements of the natural world or even reminders of them have a positive effect on mental and physical health. Biophilia refers to the incorporation of daylight, free-flowing air, organic materials, plants, even wildlife–into houses and workspaces. These elements can help reduce stress levels and anxiety. Natural elements can even boost our cognitive ability, which is why the trend is proving popular in work and study spaces.

From reducing stress to improving air quality, the benefits of plants alone can be huge in any indoor space. Simple ideas such as using organic materials like wooden flooring and furniture help to create a feeling of being grounded in your environment and surrounded by nature.

There are many ways interior designers can help to inject some of the outdoors into interiors. Green walls, paving and grass effect carpet tiles, illuminated ceiling tiles which depict the sky and wallpapers with scenes of trees and lakes can really generate a positive atmosphere in specific spaces within an indoor spaces and help inhabitants to connect with nature.

Design beyond the physical

Traditional interior designers meet beauty and function together, a holistic interior design does that, and goes [past] furniture and decor into things beyond the physical world.

Did you know that there is a way of designing that takes the energies of a space into mind when crafting your perfect home or office? We’re gonna talk about electromagnetism. This might seem a little out of left field, but let us explain.

The NIH has been monitoring the potential harm of electric and magnetic fields. EMFs are the frequencies emitting from telephone poles, cell towers, and cell phones. While inconclusive, early studies have found a possible connection between EMF exposure and negative health effects. While you shouldn’t take that as an excuse to go put on a tinfoil hat, it is something to keep in mind when choosing a place to live or work.

When testing the space for electromagnetic frequencies, you can make sure there's no natural EMF fields occurring where you might put your bed or your desk.

How to go about creating interior designs that positively impact mental wellbeing?

Experienced interior designers have known the influence design has on mental health for many years. They constantly ask clients how a room design or an item in the room makes the client feel. They also ask if a room reduces or induces stress.

When getting to know prospective clients, designers ask for a tour of their entire home, regardless of the scope of the project. During the tour, it’s important to ask how often they’re in that space, what are the activities they do there, how the space makes them feel, what they like and don’t like as much. The goal is for them to talk about themselves and their relationship to the space. For the designer, it is to listen, listen, listen.

Interior design, then, is not only about making your home more beautiful. It’s also about making it a happier and healthier place.

Final thoughts

There’s no one-size-fits all approach to improving mental wellbeing. What works for one person might not work for you. However, there’s no denying that happiness begins at home, and an interior specifically designed to boost your mental health could have great implications on your everyday life.

At Forest Homes, we're experienced in applying the principles of biophilic design to improve indoor spaces wellbeing, and finding ways to make people feel much happier in their homes. To see how we can help you, visit our homepage for inspiration.


  • Nifty

    Your article on the link between interior design and mental health has prompted me to reconsider my living space. Thanks for highlighting this important connection!

  • Lora

    Hi! It really helped my with my research during my big project.

  • Steffi

    Brilliant article! I feel so inspired

  • Halima

    Great article, would love to connect with the person who wrote it :)

  • Kristen

    Hi- This is a great article! My daughter is interested in pursuing this design psychology after completing her junior research project on the impact interior design has on mental health and well-being. She’s looking at colleges now. Do you have any recommendations for programs and/or colleges to pursue this career? Thank you!

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