Decades of environmental psychology research tell us that everything that surrounds us is crucial to our mental health, and nature has a particularly powerful role in making us feel good. Clinical studies suggest that natural light can significantly improve health outcomes for patients with depression and agitation. Likewise, cluttered spaces spike cortisol levels in the body resulting in stress and depression, but also make us more prone to making mistakes and giving in to our impulses. A 1984 study published in Science found that surgery patients recovered better in rooms with a view of trees rather than a brick wall.
This all may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Fields like architecture and design, whose main goal is to create pleasant and functional spaces for their inhabitants, haven’t always fully embraced these principles.
There are, in fact, several easy and right-before-your-nose tweaks you can do to make your home a more hospitable space for your mental health. They are more than just scattering plants around, but they’re renter-friendly, and don’t require a large budget or the freedom to tear down walls.
The rise of biophilic design
Natalia Olszewska, a researcher of neuroscience applied to architecture at The Centre for Conscious Design who works to help build spaces that focus on mental health, explains that there are biological principles, like the need for natural light and greenery, that we should consider when creating spaces. But it has taken a while for architecture and design to accommodate these needs, she adds.
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Biophilic design is a novel understanding of the importance of natural elements in home design. Meaning “passionate love of life,” this architectural trend recognizes nature as the stage of our evolution as a species and incorporates that relationship into the spaces we inhabit. This, biophilic design scholars say, is one of the most effective ways to create spaces that are better for our mental health.
“In the last about 200,000 years, our brains haven’t changed much. Our bodies haven’t changed much—we are basically still the same species,” says Michal Matlon, an architecture psychologist who works with Olszewska on Venetian Letter, a mental health and design newsletter. He explains that our brains and bodies have developed to fit inside natural environments and we need to build spaces that reflect that. It’s not just about how they look aesthetically, but about how they stimulate our senses.
Prioritize natural light
In nature, light is one of the most constant resources and it’s vital for us. We need it to regulate our metabolism, produce essential nutrients like vitamin D, and get in a good mood.
This is why light is one of the most important elements to keep in mind when designing our homes. Access to daylight improves sleeping quality and mental health, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Another study published in 2020 by the same journal showed participants who had access to natural light scored 42 percent higher in cognitive assessments than those who didn’t.
If you own your home and have the resources, you could increase your daily dose of sunshine by adding some roof lights. But something as simple as opening the blinds or the curtains every day can make a huge difference, explains Ben Channon, an architect, and author of Happy by Design. Even just moving your desk under a direct source of natural light could do the trick of improving your performance and creativity.
“We know that we need natural light, but there has also been a lot of talk about circadian lighting,” Matlon says.
Several studies have shown that avoiding artificial light as much as possible during the evenings, and blue lights, in particular, has a positive effect on our sleep cycle. This too, Matlon says, is an easy tweak. You can purchase smart light bulbs and set them to dim automatically as the evening comes, or you can seek out special blue-spectrum-reduced light bulbs to ensure the light around your home—especially in the bedroom and the living room—is warm. Introducing smaller task lights or zoned atmospheric lamps can help focus illumination 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 a room and get you ready for bed.
You might also want to recreate the dynamism of light in the outside world. Olszewska recommends you try looking for lamps that mimic the effect of light traveling through a canopy, for example, or the reflection of moving water. Similarly, it makes sense that sunset lamps have been taking the internet by storm.
But Olszewska says it is not just about greens and blues to mimic the trees and the ocean. Since the idea is to bring the outdoors in, the colors you choose will depend on your home’s surroundings—this includes the urban design but also the geography of the place.
“You want to have this kind of correspondence between the colors outside and the colors inside because you want to recreate a connection with the outside,” she says.
Amber Dunford, a design psychologist at Overstock.com, says monochromatic color palettes can also help your surroundings remind you more of nature. And more nature means better mental health. In the design world, monochromatic palettes don’t mean just one hue, but families of colors that are close to each other, like orange going into yellow.
“Monochromatic spaces elicit a calming effect on humans, as the transition in color changes are more subtle and easy to experience,” she says. “While contrasting colors such as red and green create an energizing effect, a monochromatic palette creates a soothing effect.”
It’s not just the color that you paint the walls, but the tones of everything or at least the main elements in a room. Start with an anchoring piece like a rug or sofa, says Dunford, and then layer in smaller elements such as pillows, throws, and artwork in similar hues.
Don’t be afraid of patterns
It’s easy to think that using natural, monochromatic palettes means veering toward an aesthetic you’d consider plain or boring. But nature is full of patterns and intricate fractals, Channon notes, and research shows that recreating them inside your home can help reduce stress by up to 60 percent.
“There’s a need for visual complexity because we don’t like to be bored,” says Channon.
Even just looking at pictures of nature can relax you as much as if you were looking at an actual nature landscape, according to a 2019 study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. And if you don’t want to straight-up hang pictures of the oceans and forests on your walls, one easy trick to satisfy your need for visual complexity and nature is to use leaf, wood, or water patterns.
Introduce natural textures
No natural environment is ever completely smooth, so you can experiment with textures by adding carpets, curtains, and furniture. You can also blur the line between outdoors and indoors by introducing exposed brick and concrete. But adding woodgrain, even in small amounts, is the ultimate hack to bring that outside feel into your home.
“Living around wood texture can provide the same stress-reducing response we would experience from being out in nature,” says Dunford. “These surfaces provide a sense of warmth and safety, and are often described as being cozier and more welcoming in relation to other textures and materials.”
A study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, showed touching wood grain can calm prefrontal cortex activity and activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which induces relaxation.
If you already have wooden furniture at home, consider exposing the natural wood by sanding it down to remove paint or shiny finishes, Dunford says. She also recommends foraging wood and using it as decor throughout your space.
“A simple branch arrangement in a vase or a large piece of bark can act as an accessory when paired with other objects on a shelf,” she explains.
You can also introduce small pieces like a carved wood bowl, wood frames, or larger elements like a wooden coffee table or furniture with wood arms.
Suss it out with organic shapes
You’ve never seen a perfectly squared rock or a totally straight tree, which is why using a couple of odd shapes around the house can help remind your brain of the natural habitat it has come from.
“You could buy furniture like a coffee table or a side table that’s maybe curved like a stub,” says Channon.
Nice rounded shapes can do the trick as well.
Stimulate all of your senses
“Whenever you are outdoors you are really fascinated by what’s happening because all your senses are activated,” says Matlon. “So let’s not just focus on what you can see, but also what you can hear and feel.”
Large empty spaces with echoes can be distracting and alienating because there usually aren’t any in nature, says Matlon. Instead, use textures and acoustic materials, like carpets and upholstery, to absorb the echo. You should also consider incorporating natural sounds into your spaces—a small table fountain can easily provide the song of a babbling brook.
Similarly, technology can now emulate natural acoustics. Recently Matlon noticed his air conditioning unit had an option to mimic a natural breeze as if the windows were open, pushing air in unevenly and at different angles. “The air feels much more natural and comfortable,” says Matlon. Not everybody’s air conditioning does this, of course, but you can try out white noise machines, or even online platforms or smartphone apps, to add a little bit of natural ambiance to your space.
A role for each room—even the corridor
Try to separate the spaces where you sleep and rest from the ones where you recreate and work. This can help your brain get in the right mood for what it needs to do, says Channon.
But transition spaces, such as corridors or entrances, are important too. They are often forgotten and neglected, but can serve as important points to recover your attention and find peace in between areas of your home, says Olszewska.
For example, transition spaces can help you move from your workday to a relaxing evening.
“Corridors or passage spaces could be a great opportunity for us to recover our cognitive resources,” says Olszewska, who is pioneering the movement of bringing corridors to the center of architectural design. In her study published in the Journal of Science-Informed Design, she analyzes the role of Japanese gardens as transition spaces that serve as restorative areas for the mind.