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How to make every place a happy place

Light affects behaviour

By Jen Stern

, |

How to make every place a happy place

Light affects behaviour

By Jen Stern

, |

3 min read

The plethora of ‘information’ about how colour affects mood has had property managers considering painting their facilities green for calming, or orange to increase food sales.

But the relationship between colour and mood is not an exact science, and one person’s happy colour may well make another person positively nauseous – at least when it comes to paint. But available evidence indicates that different coloured light can reliably affect a person’s state of mind.

Blue for the blues

A 2010 Belgian study showed that different coloured light affected the way people reacted to emotional stimuli, and suggests that blue light improves mood. Well, that’s hardly surprising, as we all know – deep within our subconsciousness – that sunlight and blue skies somehow equate with happiness. And that’s borne out by a Chinese study that showed that Mongolian gerbils that were deprived of blue light became depressed.

But that’s all academic. Does this actually make a difference in the real world? It seems it does. Japanese railway authorities installed overhead blue lights at stations that were particularly ‘popular’ suicide sites. (Japan has a very high suicide rate, partly due to the stressful culture of extreme competitiveness and hard work, but also partly due to the lingering positive attitudes to the historical formal practice of ritual suicide known as seppuku or hara-kiri.)

Anyhow – a ten-year before-and-after study by the University of Tokyo indicates that the blue lights work. Stations with blue lights showed an 84% decrease in suicides for the study period. Most importantly – there was no compensating increase in neighbouring stations, so it seems the blue lights not only prevented suicide in the spot in which they were installed, but generally.

And it’s not just mood. A recent University of Arizona study showed that just a half-hour application of blue light improved short-term and long-term memory, and also enhanced alertness and reaction time.

A simple, safe panacea

Wow! If it’s really that simple, perhaps you should consider putting blue lights in the boardroom, and in offices to improve performance and sweeten the atmosphere. After all, something that improves efficiency and makes your staff happier has got to be a winner. And maybe even in the gatehouses, so that security guards can be more alert and more vigilant – and respond quicker to any emergency that may arise. Actually, let’s just put them everywhere, and make the world a happy place.

Sounds good, but let’s have a quick reality check.

It’s not that simple, and we can’t evade our biology. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve our performance and our mood, but we have to bear in mind why and how – and when – this blue light has such a positive effect.

The melatonin maladjustment

Another study shows that the effect of the application of blue light varies considerably depending on when the subject is exposed to it. We evolved to frolic, hunt and forage during the day, and to sleep at night. And that’s why we respond to the lovely blue light that filters through a sunny sky. So what the study showed is that blue light during the day is highly beneficial, but blue light at night is just the opposite.

Okay, so how does this affect us in the real world?

Well, it seems from the Japanese experience that there can be positive benefits in using blue light indoors during the day – and perhaps even more so by using translucent blue roofing for verandas. The study also supports the ever-growing body of evidence that exposure to blue light at night negatively impacts on the duration and quality of sleep. And it brings up another big problem, for which the answer is still a matter of research – and that’s how best to ensure the health of shift workers.

So, the short answer is: Yes, blue light is good, but only in the right environment – and that’s in the daytime, and not on the roofs of a phalanx of cars escorting a crooked politician.

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