9 ways color affects your mood

How to use color therapy to feel better.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

How people see color is highly scientific; photoreceptors in your retina translate light energy of various wavelengths into colors. But how people process colors is intricately connected to emotions. Figuring out how color influences mood and behavior aids psychologists, market researchers, designers and just about everyone else, including everyday people who would like to feel better.

Color therapy dates back to olden times. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used color as a tool in their healing temples. Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic practitioners integrate color into their treatments. Modern color therapy dates back to a 1933 book called “The Spectro Chrometry Encyclopedia” by Dinshah Ghadiali, an Indian scientist. Ghadiali’s contemporary, Dr. Harry Riley Spitler, experimented with the psychological and physiological effects of colored lights shining in patients’ eyes.

While scientists continue to study how color stimulates the brain and produces certain hormones, many color therapists also rely on traditional and folk practices.

-- By Teresa Bergen for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 12 A rainbow (I. Lizarraga/Getty Images)

Color and appetite

In a 2012 study, Cornell University researchers Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum found that study participants ate 22 percent more when plates matched food. Want to eat less? Use a plate color that contrasts with your food. Or, if your goal is to eat more greens, choose a green plate and you’re likelier to heap on the spinach and kale. Diners ate 10 percent less when the plates did not highly contrast with the placemat or tablecloth. The researchers also found that people ate less when using smaller plates.

Certain colors seem to make people hungrier.  “Every single fast-food company uses red and yellow,” says Leanne Venier, artist and trained color therapist who lectures about the use of color at major medical centers. Red speeds up your actions, making you order, eat and leave quickly. Indeed, research by the late interior designer Antonio F. Torrice correlates colors to physical systems, including red to motor skill activity.

2 of 12 Pancakes on a white plate (James And James/Getty Images)

Better focus with yellow

In 1994, UCLA researchers Patricia Valdez and Albert Mehrabian learned that emotional response to color is based on saturation and brightness.  “Saturation is how pure a color is, so Kelly green is more saturated than a khaki green,” says Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist. Saturated colors increase energy levels, she says, and bright colors provide more pleasure.

Interior designer DeAnna Radaj recommends adding bright yellow accents to your office to help you focus. If you want to be alert, she says, include yellow flowers, picture frames or rugs.  But don’t use it as your main color, as it can cause anxiety and restlessness.

Workplaces require some kind of color. A U.S. Navy study found that accident frequency dropped 28 percent in the three years after adding color into the workplace. Similar results in school studies reveal that passively absorbing color improves focus in both students and teachers.

3 of 12 Yellow flowers (Neo Vision/Getty Images)

Signal you’re looking for love

Many color therapists rely on the chakra system. These seven wheels of energy located along the center line of the body each corresponds to a color. The root chakra, located at the genitals, correlates to sex, survival and the color red.

Science bears this out. Studies by Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester determined that many male primates – human and nonhuman – find red arousing.

“For men, it’s about procreation,” color therapist Venier says. “It makes them think about having sex.” Females also find red on males attractive; alpha male apes have redder bodies. “Female apes want to have sex with the alpha male,” she says, citing desire for the security that comes from pairing off with a better provider.

If you’re taking things a little slower, try a watered-down red. Radaj recommends pink for singles looking for a relationship. “Pink represents self-love and acceptance,” she says. 

4 of 12 A woman wearing pink (Olivia Bell Photography/Getty Images)

Mood changing at your computer

Dr. Richard Hammer of the University of Missouri School of Medicine uses two screen savers of Venier’s paintings to change his mood. One features calming, cool colors that ease agitation. The other uses warm colors to perk him up when he’s feeling lethargic.

To try this on your computer, find some paintings or pictures that appeal to you. Pick blues, greens and purples to soothe the nerves. Reds, oranges and yellows will stimulate you. When in need of a mood change, fill your screen with the chosen picture. Stare at the image for a minute or two until your mood changes.

5 of 12 A blue abstract painting (Ekely/Getty Images)

Turn back the clock: Use color to stimulate collagen growth

Color slows aging in two ways: by reducing stress and stimulating collagen growth. Stress contributes to illness and aging by shortening telomeres, protective caps on the ends of DNA. Staring at certain colored images reduces stress levels, which may have an anti-aging effect, according to Hammer.

You also absorb color through your skin. Studies of red light therapy date back to 1942, when Russian scientists demonstrated a stimulating effect on the sympathetic nervous system.

Red light therapy is now used as a spa treatment to regenerate collagen and to tighten existing collagen. This plumps up your face for a more youthful look, Venier says. You can go to a spa or buy a red light device to use at home. Choose 660 nanometers, the optimal wavelength. Allow 18 minutes for a full face treatment.

6 of 12 Red light (Caspar Benson/Getty Images)

Ease SAD and depression

Looking at uplifting colors such as red, orange and yellow can ease some cases of depression, Venier says. Avoid cool tones such as blues, greens and grays.

But if your depression is caused by lack of sunlight or melatonin issues, Venier recommends blue light therapy. “Our eyes have a photoreceptor that responds to that color of blue,” she says. “When you see that color, your body immediately stops producing melatonin, so you perk up.” Spending time in the sun’s full-spectrum light also helps. But if you live somewhere dreary, buying a blue light device could turn your gray days around.

7 of 12 Blue light (iLexx/Getty Images)

De-escalate arguments

Many people liken anger to “seeing red.” There’s something to that. "If your relationship has been challenging or argumentative, steer away from red and orange,” advises Margaret Ann Lembo, an author who writes about changing your life with color. Instead, wear more blue, green and purple. “Cobalt blue brings calmness, while turquoise and pastel blue aid in communication of all types.”

Lembo draws on chakra color theory and traditional meanings of colors. Some of these are difficult or impossible to prove scientifically, but may work like affirmations and goal setting. People who write down their goals are much likelier to attain them. Similarly, if you wear a turquoise ring because the color is associated with clear communication, you’ll remember your intention to improve your communication skills each time you see your hand. You could also put a colored stone in your pocket. “Once the intention is set, even if you don't see the stone, you might touch it or think about it and it will bring your mind back to your intention," Lembo says.

8 of 12 A woman in green (Image Source/Getty Images)

Sleep better

For better sleep, calm yourself down with cool colors. Radaj recommends blue, green, purple and gray for decorating your bedroom, as these slow the heart rate and lower body temperature. Reducing clutter and the number of electronic gadgets in the room also promotes better sleep. “You should only introduce a warm color into your bedroom or bedding if you're planning a special night with your sweetie,” Radaj says.

Blue light therapy devices can cure delayed sleep phase syndrome, Venier says. She suffered from this condition of extreme night-owlism for years before stumbling on a solution. “Within three days of using the blue light device, the sun would start going down and I’d be yawning,” she says, adding that the blue light increases melatonin production when you’re supposed to be producing it.

9 of 12 A gray and green bedroom (David Papazian/Getty Images)

Bolster academic performance

Elliot’s studies found that the red ink used so unstintingly by many teachers actually harms students’ analytical performance. His experiments compared students who were given red, green, black, white or gray test covers or participant numbers. Those who got the red covers or numbers earned lower scores. Elliot’s results were the same in both the United States and Germany and with both high school and undergraduate college students. He figured that red is demotivating because of its association with failure.

So if you’re a teacher or a manager, try marking your suggestions and corrections in green instead of red. Your students or employees might feel more encouraged and perform better, since green is associated with calm, growth and compassion.

10 of 12 Blue and green desks (Light Bulb Works/Getty Images)