How Architecture and Interior Design Impact Our Happiness

By Ken DeLeon

The pandemic has forced us to involuntarily spend the majority of our time in our homes. A recent article in the Washington Post discussed how the share of US residents in their home at any given hour rose from 28% in 2019 to 61% in 2020. While the pandemic will end, its impact, including spending more time at home versus a corporate office will be an enduring legacy. Given this likely permanent shift to more time at home, more research is occurring in the field of environmental psychology, which studies how buildings affect our health, mental processes, and social interactions.

A 2020 article entitled “How to Make a Happier Home” in Psychology Today showed that the empirical research indicates that homes and buildings are most conducive to human happiness when they mimic the scale and tone of the natural world through their design and layout. This replicates a famous experiment where hospital patients healed faster with a view of nature; additionally, natural light was correlated with an alleviation of pain symptoms. Consistent findings show that incorporating nature into interior design has a positive impact on health, such as the study which showed that spending time in rooms constructed with a moderate balance of wooden surfaces has been linked to decreasing diastolic blood pressure and to a general sensation of comfort. In a recent study, participants were less stressed and fatigued in wooden indoor spaces than non-wooden ones. Overall, visual access to a natural setting has been correlated to positively influencing overall happiness, mood, and attitude.

Unsurprisingly, natural light throughout a home has been found to be one of the most restorative features found in a home. Recent studies have confirmed that human performance, both indoors and out, is improved by natural light. We think more clearly, have more energy and endurance, and simply feel more sanguine about ourselves in well-lit spaces.

In 2015, a University of Toronto study found that high-ceilinged spaces were considered more aesthetically beautiful. Through the use of MRI scanners to gauge reactions to photos of different types of interior spaces, the team discovered that high-ceilinged spaces stimulated the part of the brain structures aiding visual navigation and behavior.

Interestingly, men in particular seem to crave larger personal space bubbles when they find themselves in low-ceilinged environments and are more likely to act antagonistically when they feel cramped. This is likely due to a sense of being enclosed, stimulating our fight-or-flight response.

Other design attributes that have been correlated with happiness include curved design elements.
A 2017 study found that rooms with curvature were rated more stimulating and pleasurable to reside in versus rooms defined by rectilinear lines. Curvature may delight us because it recalls pleasant forms found in nature such as bodies of water, eggs,
and fruit whereas sharp shapes may invoke thorns, fangs, and jagged rocks, things we associate with riskier situations.

The pandemic has impacted so many facets of our lives. Now that we will be spending more time in our homes as we embrace remote working, our focus on homes should turn towards designing homes that maximize our happiness and to do so generally involves incorporating natural beauty and materials into home design. Since it has been scientifically proven that spending time in natural environments improves overall happiness, a logical conclusion is that the fields of architecture and interior design should increasingly bring the outdoors in, both literally through more windows and doors and metaphorically through incorporating natural design elements throughout the home. While home is where the heart is, so too should this be where happiness resides as well.