For the fourth time in three years, I found myself repainting my walls white. My landlord required it as a condition for vacating my apartment. In their previous incarnation my walls had been, according to Jotun’s 2020 color catalog, painted in a “free spirit” turquoise, a rusty “grounded red,” and “humble yellow.”
My friends and colleagues asked why I ever bothered painting my walls since I knew I’d have to repaint them at some point. But for me, spaces with all-white walls have always felt deeply impersonal. They drain my energy and suck the joy from my marrow. White-room torture would undoubtedly be effective on me.
But, of course, most people don’t have an adverse reaction to white walls and are happy to avoid the cost of repainting when it’s time to move on. There are others, though, who risk their rental deposits because they believe color affects their mood, productivity and even mental health. So, does it?
A quick scroll through the Internet offers up hundreds of hits on how, yes, color does indeed affect productivity and mood. But there aren’t actually enough studies for there to be a definitive conclusion. In his paper Color and Psychological Functioning: A Review of Theoretical and Empirical Work, Andrew J Elliot, concludes: “Findings from color research can be provocative and media friendly, and the public and the field [of psychology] as well can be tempted to reach conclusions before the science is fully in place. There is considerable promise in research on color and psychological functioning, but considerably more theoretical and empirical work needs to be done before the full extent of this promise can be discerned and, hopefully, fulfilled.”
That’s not to say that lived experience isn’t relevant. Naturopathic doctor and Livehealthy expert Dr Faryal Luhar, says: “What we think about color comes from how we’ve been socialized – our upbringing, our culture. I don’t wear a white coat on purpose. A lot of us doctors know that that already automatically influences how the patient might feel when they step into your office.”
There’s a whole line of study in color psychology that states the same thing. In the book Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, co-written by Elliot with Markus A Maier, the authors put forward a “color-in-context theory,” claiming that “Some responses to color stimuli are presumed to be solely due to the repeated pairing of color and particular concepts, messages and experiences.” An example of this, of course, is white.
In the West, white has become synonymous with cleanliness and purity – think of white offices and hospitals. Conversely, in many cultures in the East and the global south, white is a color of mourning. Perhaps I have some deeply engrained cultural or personal bias I’m unaware of that makes me dislike white walls in a home so much.
Indeed, as Dr Luhar explains, “Cultural things are very insidious. It’s just embedded in your DNA and your energy. Sometimes you don’t even realize why you react to certain things the way you do”. Personal and cultural bias must be considered when thinking about how color affects mental and emotional state.
One owner of several properties in Abu Dhabi explains that apartments are “painted all-white to give people a sense that the property is ready, and tends to get people to move in more quickly.” However, he finds that people who look at homes with “some painting done by previous tenants… commit to the property long term. It’s like they can see the potential life they can build in the house.”
Do white walls now mean something else – impermanence? If, according to Elliot and Maier, color exists in context, and we each have a unique lived experience, we can forget a simple biology-based answer. Maybe painting my walls has more to do with making a statement that the place is indeed my home and, maybe, just the act of getting to choose what my home looks like affects my mental health positively. So, rest easy, Instagram interior designers with all-white feeds.
According to psychologist Kendra Cherry, author of The Everything Psychology Book: An Introductory Guide to the Science of Human Behavior, interest in color psychology is growing. We might know whether color affects mood, feelings and behavior on a biological level sooner than we think.
Alexa Mena is a multidisciplinary artist and media editor for livehealthy.ae. When she's not writing for livehealthy, she's thinking about design and how it shapes the human experience.