Why colour has the power to bring us joy

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller

Have you ever associated colour with joy? Have you ever noticed that certain shapes, patterns, design styles make you feel happier than others?

This is the subject of a really fantastic Ted2018 talk by Ingrid Fetell Lee’s Where joy hides and how to find it (if you haven’t seen the video there’s a link to view it at the end of this article).

Ingrid shares her journey of discovery into what joy is and where it lives – “How do things make us feel joy? How do tangible things make us feel intangible joy?”

She noticed similarities in the form of certain shapes, lots of colour, the feeling of abundance and lightness that universally connects us to the essence of joy. Things like balloons, bubbles, ice cream cones with sprinkles on top, or confetti.

What we are experiencing is the emotional connection these things elicit within us.

And these moments of joy can appear in the most unexpected ways.

See if you can recall a recent time when you really looked at a tree bursting into bloom; saw a bunch of balloons, or one of my favourite joy moments – had your face painted with glitter at a festival, took a walk out in nature or saw the sun shining against a blue sky. Even just imagining it can create the emotional connection.

If all these things can bring us joy, why then are:

– We working in soulless, lifeless offices when colour and design can bring us more joy, support us and increase overall productivity?

– Our children going to schools that are often demotivating and uninspiring?

– Our hospitals and places that promote health and wellbeing often clinical and cold, which can impact the recovery process?

It’s a question Ingrid raises, and one I often get asked to address too.

And the topic I get asked to talk about the most these days, is how to design urban environments in a way that is more focused on positive mental health and wellbeing. And of course, using colour and design in positive ways is one of the ways we can change that for the better.

Currently, most urban environments are designed with a very limited colour palette and design style. And it’s no coincidence that The UK Centre for Urban Design and Mental health stated that city-dwellers are at greater risk of mental health problems.

From an Applied Colour Psychology perspective, here’s why that is.

For most people, and you may have noticed this yourself, when they go out in nature it instantly makes you feel better, more grounded, present and connected to a familiar, natural way of living – to life. This is because our visual system is wired to recognise the colours and patterns of nature. And when we see them it triggers positive responses in our sensory system – the ‘feeling better’ – which leads to all kinds of benefits from reducing stress and encouraging the body’s natural healing to restoring a sense of balance and calm.

Conversely, when we go into a soulless, utilitarian office, typically grey and comprising man-made materials with cold stark blue lighting, we register this as an unfamiliar, unnatural environment. We find it difficult to relate to this kind of space and it creates a discomfort and a dis-ease within us, in how we think, feel and respond. Such environments can contribute to increased anxiety, lower mental functioning, reduced capacity to perform, and physical stress to name a few things.

So how does this all relate to experiencing joy?

Well, from an Applied Colour Psychology perspective, if there is nothing in our environment to reflect back that experience of ourselves in a natural habitat or environment – which is something that can be created through the right design and use of colour – then it’s hard for positive emotions to reside there, including joy.

In a nutshell, when we experience a bleak, bland environment it makes it impossible for joy to be reflected back.

So where to next?

With nearly 3 millions views since it was uploaded in April 2018 (and steadily rising), Ingrid’s talk is really spreading the word about all the ways that colour and design can bring us joy.

And the research overwhelmingly shows that colour and design really do impact our emotional states, our mental health and our wellbeing.

So, why then are we not incorporating this innately into design? How is it we are stuck in this rut?

We could be reaping the benefits, right now, of living and working with more colour and experiencing the positive mental, emotional and physical states that brings us.

Here are some ideas that I would love to see people take on board, so we can start to make that happen.

As individuals we can recognise we have a lot more control over our personal environment such as what we choose to surround ourselves with in terms of colours, shapes, patterns, textures, materials – what makes your heart sing and brings you joy.

As design professionals we can become much more aware and versed in how to use colour & design in a way that promotes positive emotion, positive mental health and wellbeing. And be confident in our use of it for the benefit of all!

And I would love to see more business leaders recognising that the work environment really makes a difference to not just staff wellbeing but company outcomes, and that through harnessing the practical application of colour & design they can create offices and spaces that support staff to be more efficient, effective and perform better.

What could you do today to bring some colour – and some joy – into your work space, or your home? Let me know in the comments.

And if you’re a business leader looking to create work spaces that support your staff to feel more at home, be more efficient, effective and perform better, I can help. I’ve supported companies from small start-ups to global corporations to create the positive business outcomes they’re looking for through the use of colour and design for environments, spaces and products.

If you would like to have a no-obligation chat about how I can support your company in this way too, then email me at [email protected].

Wishing you a colourful day,

Karen x

P.S. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

Article first written 28th August 2018, Updated 1st August 2022

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