Living in a small space has always required compromises, and with many of us now working from home indefinitely, our environs can feel even tighter than they used to.
The potential mental health consequences of feeling confined by your space became especially obvious during the worst of the pandemic, when “a lot of people felt very closed in, and it caused anxiety and some depression,” says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, a health psychologist at Texas Tech University School of Medicine. But while it’s true that compact spaces can feel claustrophobic or stressful, they can also feel calming and cozy with the right approach. As Jaime Kurtz, a professor of psychology at James Madison University, points out: “As a species, we evolved in small spaces. We didn’t evolve to live in 3,000-square-foot houses.”
Maybe it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, that there are science-backed methods of turning a tight space into a happier, healthier place to exist. Here are a few of them.
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Researchers have found that a cluttered space can feel physically and psychologically overwhelming. One 2017 study, published in Current Psychology, associated living amid clutter with reduced productivity and chronic procrastination.
This is one problem with a straightforward remedy — you can purge your home of things you don’t need, and better organize the items you want to keep. Try adding storage systems that take advantage of vertical space, such as stackable shelves. Drawers and boxes that fit beneath furniture are also ideal when you’re working within limited square footage. However you do it, “getting rid of clutter is unbelievably liberating because all of a sudden you can live more efficiently,” says Kendall-Tackett, author of “The Well-Ordered Home.”
Plus, says Kurtz, an expert on happiness, “When you have so much stuff, it’s hard to savor it and appreciate it. When you carefully curate it, you can appreciate what you have.”
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If you share your home with someone else, differentiate between my space and your space, says Kendall-Tackett. This can be done, she says, simply by recognizing and respecting designated zones in a particular room or by setting up a room divider for privacy. Also, if you’re on a Zoom call or watching TV, use headphones.
Use color to your advantage
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The common wisdom that a small space feels larger when it’s painted with lighter colors generally holds true, according to mental health experts, because pale walls reflect more light and make rooms feel more open. That doesn’t mean you need to stick with all white walls, though. Go with “tints of colors that can make the space seem larger — use cooler colors like a light tint of blue on the wall,” advises Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in Chicago (her firm Design With Science uses principles from neuroscience to create spaces that foster well-being). Besides having an enlarging effect, cooler colors tend to feel relaxing, she adds. “And if the ceiling is a light color, it can make it feel farther away from the floor.”
For accents, “choose a few brightly colored things like pillows” to make the space feel cheerful, suggests Kurtz. “That’s the nice thing about small spaces — one thing can have a big impact.”