The office didn’t have a color scheme per se. The walls and carpet featured a shade of dirty beige known as “I-have-no-hope,” the metal staircase was painted “dead-body” gray, and the dropped ceiling was done in “dingy-Styrofoam-flecked-with-debris” white. When I toiled in this grim warren after college, I didn’t know anything about the effect of color on mood. And while dirty beige probably can’t be held completely accountable for the mass depression that permeated the office, lately I’ve started to wonder: Was it a coincidence that while working in these dank, colorless surroundings my boss and his wife split up, three employees made a habit of drinking beer mid-afternoon at their desks, and I took to wearing a shapeless brown corduroy jumper?
Frank H. Mahnke, an environmental designer based in Geneva and San Diego and one of the world’s leading color consultants, would say it was no coincidence at all. “The public underestimates the impact color has on emotional states at home, at school, in workplaces, and in health-care facilities,” he says. Even many architects and interior designers, he adds, haven’t been trained in the psychological and physiological effects of color.
Alternative health practitioners, though, have long been attuned to the power of color. Their mission might not sound as technical as Mahnke’s, but they also believe that color can affect a person’s state of mind and perhaps even his or her health. Like aromatherapy, color awareness work teaches people to use an often-overlooked aspect of their senses to promote well-being.
In Berkeley, California, for example, teachers at the Buddhist Nyingma Institute draw on ancient Tibetan theories to explain the colors of the meditation room: midnight blue to calm the mind, with vertical lines of deep red to wake up the consciousness. The colors are a silent presence designed to move observers to states of compassion and wisdom. In Tempe, Arizona, lifestyle coach and registered nurse Nadine Campbell teaches clients to release tension and promote healing by looking at the colors associated with the seven chakras, or energy centers, and breathing deeply.
While no one’s claiming that color can cure cancer, science has established that color isn’t just pretty—it’s a mood-changing, blood-pressure-altering phenomenon. “Its most important use is for relaxation,” says Springfield, Missouri, physician Norm Shealy, founder of the American Holistic Medical Association. “And since 75 percent or more of illnesses are the result of stress, relaxing can help prevent them.”
Indeed, the effects of color can be profound, says Mahnke, who warns that we surround ourselves with drab at our peril. In his landmark book, Color and Light in Man-made Environments, coauthored with his father, Rudolf, he writes, “[People] subjected to [visual] under-stimulation showed symptoms of restlessness, excessive emotional response, difficulty in concentration, irritation, and, in some cases, a variety of more extreme reactions.”
More extreme reactions? I saw one of those in that long-ago dreary office: One day my boss pulled out a hammer and shattered a Lucite paperweight. Dingy paint was starting to sound like a legal defense.
To figure out what this means to the body, psychology researcher Robert Gerard, then at the University of California at Los Angeles, did an experiment in which he flashed red, blue, and white lights at research subjects. When subjects looked at the red light, their blood pressure rose, as did breathing rates, the amount of sweat on palms, and the frequency of eye-blinks. When subjects looked at blue light, their blood pressure dropped, as did the amount of blinking and breathing. In short, they mellowed.
Gerard proposed that the longer-wavelength colors—generally the “warm” colors like red, orange, and yellow—rev us up, while the “cooler colors,” which have shorter wavelengths, calm us down. It makes sense: This is why red is considered an aggressive, lively color and why the matador waves a red cape in front of the bull. As for the cool colors, I now understand the idea behind the “green room” where people at television studios wait before going on camera: It eases anxiety.
What’s your favorite color?
While our perception of warm and cool colors is thought to be universal, some quirks of color psychology are particular to each individual. According to Mahnke, we react to color by traveling a twisty path through our physical sensations, the collective unconscious, cultural norms, and finally, our specific personal history with a certain color. We may find white houses to be clean and fresh because we grew up in one, for instance, or find them sterile and dull for the same reason.
Your Color Horoscope
A preference for a certain color reveals much about your inner desires, according to the theories of German color psychologist Heinrich Frieling. To learn what color has to tell you, use this chart, developed by interior designer Debra A. Wade, and choose the shade you find most appealing. The text that matches that color shows qualities you have or would like more of in your life.
Turquoise. Insight, progressive thinking, healing.
Red. Self-motivation, leadership, generosity.
Chartreuse. Flexibility, growth, expansion.
Pink. Support, nurturance. sympathetic understanding.
Black. Self-sufficiency, individualism, protection.
Burgundy. Adventure, emotional play and expression.
Green. Clear perception, self-recognition, compassion.
Orange. Quick-thinking, intuition, independence.
Yellow. Communication, observation, analysis.
Blue. Clear thinking, diligence, organization.
Mint. Self-healing, tranquility, time-out.
Indigo. Self-reliance, clear and holistic thought.
White. Cleansing, protective, simplification.
Gray. Need a vacation, acute sensibility, calming.
Purple. Artistry, spirituality, culture.
Yellow Orange. Life-promoting creativity, quickness.
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