Surprising Ways Home Decor Can Boost Your Happiness

Simple tricks to help rejuvenate your home, de-clutter your life and clear your mind.

Medically reviewed in January 2020

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No matter where you live, careful design can turn your space into a sanctuary. Elements like room layout, sounds from the street, even the color of your throw pillows come together to determine the character of your home. And that includes much more than looks—design influences your mental and physical health in surprising ways every day.

We spoke with Neesha Berry, MD, an internal medicine doctor from St. Mary Mercy Livonia in Livonia, Michigan and Medical Director of the St. Joe's Medical Group in Farmington Hills, Michigan, to learn about the connection between health and design. Here are nine simple ways to make over your home and improve your outlook at the same time.

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Make nature your muse

Humans aren’t meant to be kept in captivity, yet the average person spends about 80 to 90 percent of their time indoors. Some reasons to get back to nature:

  • People who lived within a half-mile of green spaces had lower rates of 15 diseases, including depression and anxiety, according to a large study involving health records from 350,000 people.
  • Walking through a park can reduce blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for rumination (repetitive, negative thoughts), according to a 2015 study completed at Stanford University.

The flowers, stone, wood and colors you’d see on a nature trail—which help to clear your mind and calm you—can be brought into your home, says Dr. Berry.

  • Choose sand or sky (grey, ivory, white) colors for backdrop items like your couch or carpet.
  • Include furniture or accent pieces with wood paneling.
  • Decorate with items that show nature like floral pillows or high-resolution photos.
  • Bring in real, but responsibly sourced items from the outdoors like finished driftwood.
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Let the light shine in

If possible, make the sun your primary source of light during the day. This may help:

  • Lower your electric bills.
  • Improve your sleep: Sunlight sends visual cues to your brain to help control your circadian rhythm. In one study, for example, people with windows in their offices, slept an average of 46 minutes more per night than those working under artificial lighting.
  • Ease pain: Hospital patients with windows facing trees require fewer pain meds and recover faster than those facing brick walls.
  • Boost productivity: Daylight promotes alertness and, in one study, students scored 10 percent higher on exams in rooms with natural lighting.

“Don’t place furniture in front of windows,” says Dr. Berry. “You should be able to open them to let in natural air and light. You want to see the flowers, trees, birds and people walking past.” If glare becomes an issue, or if sunlight spikes your AC usage, invest in transparent window films, which can reduce glare and improve temperature control.

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Get your hands dirty

Blur the lines separating your home from Mother Nature by surrounding yourself with vibrant, easy-to-care-for plants. Here’s how to incorporate greens into your design:

  • Grow fresh herbs and spices in your kitchen. Place them along the windowsill or hang them in decorative containers on the wall. Mint and basil are especially easy to care for.
  • Keep small plants like succulents or cacti on your desk—just make sure the pots don’t leak.
  • Place a tall plant like a fiddle-leaf fig tree in a corner of your living room. (This tree grows to around five to seven feet and has large, “fiddle” shaped leaves.)
  • Include stylish hanging plants like philodendron, which thrives year-round and only needs to be watered when the top layer of soil dries out.

Keep a container garden inside or a full garden in your yard, recommends Berry. Whether it's just mint and basil, or something larger, you’ll benefit emotionally from caring for the plants, and physically from eating your own fresh produce.

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Smooth on a fresh coat of paint

A long history of psychology research suggests certain colors have calming effects, while others promote the flight-or-fight response. Picking out paint swatches? Consider these findings:

  • Blue has been found to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rates and frequency of eye-blinks. A number of studies link it to lower anxiety scores and it’s been described as “calming,” “tranquil” and “cool” by participants.
  • Yellow may promote creativity and energy.
  • Green may also encourage creativity. 
  • Red is often linked to stress or excitement and may interfere with critical thinking—it’s the color of sports cars and racy underwear for a reason; it can prompt hasty decisions. It’s also been found to raise blood pressure and heart rate.

“Certain colors help you relax and unwind,” says Berry. “Blue may remind your of the ocean, cream, sand on the beach, and pale gray is almost universally calming.”

Note: While the above colors are traditionally thought to produce these effects, culture and personal experience ultimately determine the emotions people associate with colors. Saturation and shade can also change how visually straining or distracting a color appears, influencing your reaction to it. 

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Select feel-good fabrics

Rugs, blankets and curtains occupy large amounts of visual space. Use those blank canvases to add splashes of color, create a calming backdrop or display interesting patterns. But don’t forget about the touch and feel of fabrics—consider all of your senses when decorating to truly make your home a “comfort zone.” 

Things to consider when choosing fabric:  

  • For blankets: Cotton’s ideal because it’s warm, but breathable, so you won’t wake up from over-heating.
  • For throw pillows: If you have allergies, avoid down-stuffed pillows since they can trigger symptoms. Choose polyester or synthetic down instead. 
  • For rugs: Nylon is a synthetic fabric that comes in many textures and colors.  Depending on the style and brand, it can offer the feel of a high-end fabric, without the cost. It’s also stain resistant and tends to keep its original texture. 
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Drift away to soothing sounds

Noise pollution isn’t just a nuisance, it can trigger stress, interrupt sleep and may up heart disease risk. While it’s not a problem for everyone, city dwellers and people living near highways or airports should remember noise pollution in their home design.

Invest in a noise-eliminating device. Place it by your door to block out street sounds. Then, fill your home with better acoustics:

  • Zone out to wave or rain sounds. For over three hours of steady listening—ideal for drifting off to sleep—play Spotify’s Waves and Rain playlist.
  • Place a fan with different speed settings in your bedroom for white noise while you sleep.
  • Play Fireplace For Your Home on Netflix in the background while working or relaxing. (Yes, it’s a continuous video of a crackling fireplace.)
  • Keep a small, decorative fountain in your bedroom, recommends Berry. The sound of flowing water is very calming. 
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Inhale lavender (exhale tension)

Aromatherapy is the practice of inhaling scents to bring about a desired health effect. While many studies have looked at the potential benefits of aromatherapy, results have been mixed. Also, some experts wonder whether its benefits arise from the hope or expectation that it will work.  

While more research is needed, some studies suggest specific scents—like the following—might help ease anxiety and depression symptoms.

  • Orange
  • Lavender
  • Rose
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon
  • Sandalwood

Lavender is especially well known for encouraging sleep and relaxation. Not to mention, nice-smelling things like fresh flowers, essential oils and candles are just enjoyable additions to the home. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should check with a doctor before using essential oils.

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Let accent pieces prompt healthy habits

Keep a colored pencil set or watercolors on your nightstand, along with a favorite coloring book. They’ll make for eye-popping additions to your bedroom décor, but they can serve an even greater purpose—they’ll be readily available as a soothing distraction for when you lie awake worrying at night. A few minutes of coloring may relax you enough to fall asleep.

Apply this principle to other health goals. Want to build exercise into your routine? Display colorful dumbbells near your TV for exercise breaks during commercials. Trying to read more? Make your bookshelf an eye-catching centerpiece, complete with keepsakes, photos and decorative bookends.

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Banish clutter

“For overall peace of mind, keep your home as clutter-free as possible,” recommends Berry. “The fewer unnecessary items you have, the better. De-cluttering cuts down on dust, trip hazards and the time you need to spend cleaning. Being in a de-cluttered atmosphere just helps you feel clearer mentally.”

Some tips to get you started:

  • Electronically scan personal records like old receipts and tax returns. Once they’re safely stored on your hard drive—and backed up to the cloud or an external hard drive—safely discard papers by shredding or burning them.
  • Clean out your closet and donate old clothes to a charity like Dress for Success, which helps women achieve job security and independence by providing support and professional attire. 
  • Don’t leave shoes in a heap at the bottom of your closet. Fix shoe chaos with a shoe rack, over-the-door organizer or under-the-bed drawer.

Read more from Dr. Berry.

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