YAM explores how to create a living space that calms, heals and nourishes — and invites happiness.
By Athena McKenzie
Every year around the holidays, I cover my bed with a hand-knit afghan my Nan gave me almost three decades ago. Made from wool scraps from her knitting projects, it features a vibrant rainbow of contrasting stripes in pink, yellow, green and blue, all bound in a deep black border. While it does not really suit any of my décor, its riot of colour never ceases to “spark joy,” to borrow a term from author Marie Kondo.
Finding happiness in a blanket might seem a childish thing, but sometimes it is the small things that make a person joyful. As Victoria Harrison argues in her recent book Happy by Design, “wealth, power and prestige might bring us a short-term boost, but often it is the simple pleasures in life that can bring the greatest level of peace and happiness.”
With stress, anxiety and burnout seemingly on the rise, Harrison wanted to discover if we could actively improve our health and well-being simply by focusing on and nurturing moments of domestic contentment in the way we design our living spaces. Ultimately, she wanted to answer one simple question: Can our home make us happier?
From talking to experts — a NASA scientist on the oxygenating benefits of houseplants, for example — Harrison started from the basics, building a “Happy Home Program,” with the aim of helping everyone create a living space that calms heals, and nourishes.
Whether you follow every step or use bits of the advice for a quick hit of happiness, the tips and inspiration in Harrison’s book can shift the way you think about home and its impact on your mood and mental well-being.
Decorate With Plants
While happiness often seems elusive, there are a whole lot of things we can do to increase our well-being. And Harrison argues that one of the easiest ways to boost health and happiness levels inside your home is to embrace houseplants.
What can houseplants do for you? Harrison looked to NASA and the research done by Dr. Bill Wolverton and his team on the Clean Air Study that was undertaken to tackle sick building syndrome, which occurs in modern structures that are sealed too well, allowing the off-gassing from carpets, furniture and cleaning products to build up.
NASA discovered that the best way to treat your indoor air to a detox is simply to bring in hard-working houseplants.
“Research shows that just being in the presence of plants helps to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and, in work environments, increase worker productivity,” Wolverton explains to Harrison. “Plants also remove airborne volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and particulate matter.”
Beyond that wondrous service, your houseplants could also be giving you a natural mood boost. “They emit negative ions,” says Dr. Wolverton, “which not only help reduce airborne microorganisms, but give us a euphoric feeling.”
From creating clusters and vignettes to dotting them along bookshelves (my method of choice) to hanging them from the shower rail to suspending them from the ceiling, decorating with houseplants is an easy way to bring in the outdoors and an easy step on a Happy House program — one I’m happy to embrace. Personally,
I’ll be investing in a heartier option (translation: less killable) such as the leafy Lady Palm, a powerhouse at removing toxins.
Tidy Home = Happy Heart
There’s been much made lately of the idea that an uncluttered space can improve one’s well-being. Look no further than the craze started with Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Harrison’s own book dedicates an entire chapter to tidying your home for happiness, including the top habits of tidy people, easy things to get rid of to reduce untidiness, and how to tackle clutter hotspots, such as the entryway, the kitchen counter and bedside table.
Local professional home organizer Jaclynn Soet of The Happy Nest has seen firsthand how decluttering and tidying can make a tremendous difference to one’s happiness. She points to a client who reclaimed her basement suite, which had become unusable due to all the junk stored in the space.
“She checked in with her emotional needs when deciding how to use the space,” Soet says.
“She wanted a place for company to stay, a hang-out zone for her kids, so she knows where they are, and a bright happy space to do puzzles. Some things needed to be incorporated for sentimental reasons, including a wing chair purchased when she first got married, special books, family photos and art purchased by her teenage daughter on her first trip without her parents.”
In working on the space, Soet saw the homeowner through a lot of emotional work, as she moved from feeling shame about the clutter to discovering joy in finding and expressing her own personal sense of style.
“Your home should be a place of rest, to recharge your battery and renew your sense of peace,” Soet says. “It’s amazing the transformation that people undergo once their space is in order. It radiates out to touch other parts of their lives, giving them more confidence and even improving their social interactions.”
While it may seem obvious that a tidy home can make us happier, it can be an elusive goal. Small, achievable steps may be the answer. In Happy By Design, Harrison points to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that
showed cleaning your home vigorously for 20 minutes nonstop once a week can improve levels of anxiety, distress or depression. This is something I’ve experienced personally: that feeling of contentment from cleared surfaces and knowing everything is in its place. My partner knows that Saturday mornings are dedicating to “puttering,” when it’s time to
get it done.
Another key to Harrison’s Happy Home Program is how to decorate with colour. According to research by the University of Manchester, when it comes to colours that make us feel happy, yellow is the winner (with grey at the other end of the spectrum). This doesn’t mean you need to paint all of your walls with liquid sunshine. As Harrison makes clear, small changes can have a big impact when it comes to yellow. Feel free to add a dramatic statement wall in a bold buttercup, but there are more subtle steps one can take to add this mood-boosting hue.
An easy way to bring a soft, sunny glow to your space is to line the inside of a lampshade with a heat-resistant fabric in a warm yellow tone. A yellow-toned light bulb is another
way to add a golden-hued light. You can even add it through décor pieces.
“Yellow is a wonderful highlight colour,” Harrison writes. “It works well to draw attention to a piece of statement furniture.”
Other ways to add a splash of yellow include rugs and textiles, artwork and florals.
Harrison is also quick to point out that one shouldn’t abandon grey, one of the more popular colours with interior decorators of late. If you’re doing the Happy Home Program and want to use grey, try for warmer-hued tones as cold greys can feel gritty and industrial.
For Soet, colour can be very personal. She believes it’s more important to pick a hue that speaks to you and introduce pops through your space.
“Just catching a glimpse of your favourite colour can make a real difference in your mood,” Soet says.
If I had to choose, I’d say blue is my happy colour. It fills me with a sense of calm. I’ve realized my bedroom has little of this favourite hue, and I’m resolved to adding some of this relaxing shade — an action that fits into another Happy Home Program step: “Unlocking the Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep.”
By shifting the way we think about our spaces — from the colours we use to the way we set up our bedrooms to taking back time from our smartphones by increasing the opportunities to unplug — and incorporating elements that we know bring us joy, one can create an uplifting home, a refuge from the stresses of modern life.
While the take-aways are many, the true power of Harrison’s book is its conclusion:
“It’s the simple things in life that have the power to bring us the most happiness.”
Wrapped up in my Nan’s wooly blanket, I know this in my heart to be true.
This article is from the November/December 2018 issue of YAM.