Choosing colors that make us feel calm and happy can have a big impact on our moods and overall wellbeing. The colors we surround ourselves with at home, work, or school can subconsciously influence our emotions and energy levels. While color preferences are somewhat subjective, there are some general guidelines on how different hues, shades, and tones tend to affect people psychologically and physiologically. Understanding the science behind how we perceive and react to color can help guide choices that promote more relaxation and joy in our lives.
The Psychology and Science of Color
The study of how color impacts mood and feelings is called color psychology. It looks at emotional and physiological responses people have to different wavelengths and hues of light. Early pioneers in the field found connections between colors and emotions. For example, red tended to evoke feelings of excitement, passion, or anger, while blue created feelings of calmness and serenity. Studies since then have confirmed and expanded on these links between color perception and mood.
Part of this connection has to do with the evolutionary associations we have with colors from the natural world. Blue, for instance, conjures thoughts of clear skies and bodies of water – things that represent safety, stability, and security. Green makes us think of lush vegetation, symbolizing growth, harmony, and renewal. While these color associations are partly learned, researchers believe we also have innate, biological responses as well.
How Our Eyes and Brain Process Color
On a physiological level, the specific wavelengths of light that make up different hues impact the brain. Shorter wavelengths (blue, green, purple) have more energy and arousal potential than longer wavelengths (yellow, orange, red). When part of the retina called the post-thalamus receives signals from light-sensitive cells, it triggers the release of the hormone serotonin. This biochemical gives us a mood boost and feelings of wellbeing.
Therefore, looking at shades like blue-green can stimulate calm by increasing serotonin. In contrast, seeing red hues late at night may disrupt sleep patterns because they arouse and signal the brain it’s time to be alert. Understanding this biological link between color perception, brain activation, and hormone response is key to choosing palettes that induce more relaxation in spaces.
Calming Color Categories
While reactions to color are somewhat subjective, many studies have identified broad categories of hues considered relaxing, soothing, and mood-lifting for most people. Some examples of universally calming colors include:
Shades of blue are by far the most commonly identified as calming, peaceful, and relieving anxiety. Looking at ocean waves, clear skies, or bright sapphire lights triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing heartbeat and breathing. Using varied tones of blue in spaces promotes relaxation. Light powder or steel blues work well in bedrooms, while bolder shades can add energy to living areas. Avoid darker navy tones in small spaces which may feel depressive.
Green is another go-to for promoting tranquility because of its associations with the natural world. Medium-toned greens like sage provide gentle stimulation to the eyes and brain. Using organic shades in home decor reflects the soothing essence of flowers, trees, and plants. Cool mint greens are crisp and clean, while forest and mossy greens are rich and grounding. Just avoid going too dark with greens which can feel dingy or overwhelming.
Violet hues combine the soothing aspects of blue and the positive energy of red. Lavender is strongly associated with relaxation and romance. Orchid, lilac, and wisteria shades give rooms a soft, welcoming glow. These purple tones can help ease worries and lower stress levels. But avoid very deep plummy purples which may feel regal yet oppressive.
Neutrals like white, beige, gray, and soft browns provide flexibility in rooms you want to feel soothing but not too stark. Off-whites, warm grays, and subdued taupes create an understated, comforting backdrop. Natural wood and linen add texture without being too distracting. You can then layer in accents of calmer blues, greens, or violets. The tranquility of neutrals makes them ideal for medical settings.
Invigorating vs Soothing Colors
While rich, bold colors often get attention, sometimes their stimulating effects are not ideal for relaxation. Here are some hues that tend to energize or overstimulate compared to more soothing palettes:
Pure red is intensely energizing and draws the eye quickly, raising pulse rates. While bright red accents may perk up a space, large swaths can feel anxious, especially in bedrooms. Deeper burgundy reds are warmer but still vivid. Save this color for energizing spaces where you want to motivate productivity and activity.
Like red, unadulterated orange tones advance towards the eyes and feel energizing yet abrasive at times. However, when blended towards warmer peach and terracotta tones, orange can take on a calmer, more soothing effect. Gold-tinged orange can feel illuminating. Avoid cold oranges which may appear cheap or abrasive.
Clear, lemony yellows almost universally test as the most energizing, stress-inducing shades. They immediately stimulate the eyes and mind, making concentration difficult. Softer yellows like buttery cream or wheat can provide cheery warmth, however. Save clear yellows for kitchens or work spaces where upbeat energy is helpful.
Determining Your Own Color Preferences
While the above research on calming colors provides helpful guidance, you may find your own color experiences differ in some cases. Due to personal associations and psychology, certain hues you might expect to be relaxing may actually feel agitating or depressing to you. When selecting a color palette for your home or workspace, consider the following:
Trust Your Instincts
Go with what attracts you visually and makes you respond positively. Don’t choose a color just because it fits a certain description. Pay attention to your sensory reactions. Do you feel soothed or stressed as you look at different hues? This instinctive response is a clue to whether a color is relaxing or stimulating for you.
Consider Personal Associations
Your past experiences with colors influence how you may respond to them. For example, if you had a beautiful blue bedroom as a child, the hue may take on sentimental qualities. Or red may remind you of an ex and stir up tense emotions. Take such personal color meanings into account.
Note Cultural Color Symbolism
Colors take on different symbolic meanings in various cultures that can shape your reactions. In many Western cultures white is viewed as clean and pure, but in some Asian cultures it symbolizes death and bad luck. Consider your cultural color associations as well.
Observe Small Samples
Don’t just rely on the abstract concept of a color: look at actual fabric swatches, paint strips, or printed samples before committing to a hue in your home. Colors take on different characteristics at different gradients and saturations. Seeing an actual sample can reveal if a color is as relaxing or as overwhelming as you hoped.
Tips for Using Calming Colors at Home
Once you’ve selected colors that you find personally soothing and relaxing, incorporate them strategically into room designs for maximum benefit:
Prioritize Main Living Areas
Use calming colors in spaces where you spend much of your time and want to set a serene mood. Paint living room walls a soft sage green or taupe. Choose a pastel blue or lavender for the bedrooms. This creates a welcoming, comforting feel.
Select Multiple Accent Colors
Don’t just stick to one hue. Combining a few complementary soothing colors provides visual interest. Try light blue walls with mint and peach accents or tan walls with sky blue and violet decorative items. Layering colors adds depth.
Use Neutrals as a Base
Off-whites, beiges, warm grays, and other neutral backdrops allow brighter accent shades to stand out without becoming overwhelming. They provide a flexible base you can layer blues, greens, or violets over.
Add Texture and Patterns
Solid blocks of color can feel flat and monotonous. Add natural texture with wood grain, woven, or quilted fabrics. Patterns in soothing colors like stripes or floral prints also bring life to a space.
Use Colors to Define Areas
Paint hallways and entry spaces in clean, light colors to imply openness upon entering. Use richer tones like emerald or plum to create intimate spaces like dining rooms or bedrooms. This color zonning helps each area feel more cohesive.
Calming Color Schemes for Rooms
Some soothing, inspiring color combinations to consider by room:
- Pale blue walls, wheat colored sofa, aqua and violet throw pillows, white trim
- Sage green walls, cream sofa, rust orange throw blanket, warm white trim
- Lavender walls, slate blue sofa, peach and mint throw pillows, white trim
- Light gray blue walls, white bedding with pale blue and lavender accents, off-white trim and furniture
- Warm tan walls, ivory bedding with sage and jade green touches, bleached wood nightstands
- Soft peach walls, white bedding with pink and seafoam accents, eggshell white trim and furniture
- Wisteria purple walls, cream dining set, mint and robin’s egg blue accents
- Sage green walls, driftwood table, turquoise and orange art prints
- White shiplap walls, espresso dining set, violet and seafoam accents
Entryway / Halls:
- Vanilla / Almond walls and trim, powder blue door
- Dove gray walls and trim, slate green door
- Eggshell white walls and trim, lavender door
Using Soothing Colors at Work
Incorporating calming colors into workplaces and offices provides similar mood-lifting benefits. Here are some tips on using restorative palettes in professional settings:
Paint Key Meeting Rooms
Using relaxing colors in conference rooms, offices, or other spaces where tense conversations may occur helps lower stress and anxiety levels during use. Avoid bright reds or oranges that may feel confrontational.
Select Subtle Tones for Walls and Major Surfaces
Bold colors on large surfaces overwhelm the eyes. Use muted shades like light blue or sage green paints, off-white paneling, or soft gray cabinets as backgrounds. This provides breathing room.
Add Pops of Color With Furniture and Decor
Then layer in bolder accent colors through moveable furniture, pillows, shelving, carpets, and artwork. This allows you to update looks easily.
Use Warm Neutrals in Entry Areas
Soft beiges, warm grays, and light browns help lobbies, hallways, and waiting areas feel welcoming, clean, and inclusive. Stay away from bold reds or vibrant hues that may feel jarring.
Prioritize Break Rooms
Make sure communal kitchens, lounges, and other respite areas take advantage of calming colors. Use light blue-grays or pale greens to encourage employees to relax and de-stress as they take work breaks.
Choosing the right calming, mood-enhancing colors for your surroundings has major impacts on wellbeing. Cooler, more muted green, blue, violet, and neutral tones tend to soothe and relax most people, while clear bright primary colors usually energize and overstimulate. But make sure to test your personal reactions, as associations and preferences can vary. Find hues that make you respond positively, then use these restorative colors strategically in home or work spaces to create sanctuary. With the right color palette, you can craft rooms that feel like a soothing oasis from stress.