Editor’s Note: This feature is part of Colorscope, an award-winning series exploring our perception of color and its use across cultures, one shade at a time. See more here.
When people see yellow they think "sunshine", "warmth" and "happiness"
The rumor that yellow makes you agitated was started years ago by a man who hated the color, a color specialist says
Ever heard that if you looked at the color yellow for too long, you might begin to feel anxious or irritated? Or that babies are more likely to cry in yellow rooms and a colleague sporting the color would be judged deeply? Or considered a coward?
The rumors are out there, and have been for some time.
If you Google search “How yellow affects your mood”, amid positive reviews of the color, a plethora of websites will also appear that warn against yellow’s agitating qualities.
“That’s absolutely not true,” said Leatrice Eiseman, color specialist and executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, which helps companies decide which colors are best for their brands or products.
Eisman knew the originator of that rumor, she said, adding that “he is now long dead.”
His name was Carleton Wagner, and he ran a school for people interested in color, she said.
“Yellow was not his favorite color and he did all he could to disparage the use of it, but that was strictly from a personal standpoint, and it’s taken on a life of its own,” Eiseman said.
In fact, yellow mostly has the opposite effect on people, she argued.
Making you happy
Through her research, Eiseman has conducted various color word association studies on thousands of people over the last 30 years. The first words that consistently come to mind when people see the color yellow are “sunshine”, “warmth”, “cheer”, “happiness” and sometimes even “playfulness”.
This stems from its association with a crucial player in our solar system – the sun.
“Give any child a box of crayons and they reach for the yellow crayon,” said Eiseman. “And invariably in the upper right hand corner or left hand corner will appear the ball of sun and often with the rays emanating out.”
The sun wakes us up, keeps us warm and feeds our crops. When it is out of the clouds, children are told to go play.
Although the sun is actually white, we perceive it as yellow or orange because these colors have higher wavelengths and are scattered less easily by Earth’s atmosphere, leaving them behind intensely for us to see. Blue, on the other hand, has low wavelengths, which explains why it is strewn across the sky.
Proving the soul-warming qualities of yellow, Eiseman has painted the main area of her own house the color. She lives in Washington, where the days are often gray and dismal and the yellow makes her feel like she has bathed in sunlight, she said.
The use of yellow to cheer people up can be traced back to London in 1917, according to “The Colour Treatment: A Convergence of Art and Medicine at the Red Cross Russell Lea Nerve Home”, by Jim Berryman. It was World War I, and a “colorist” named Howard Kemp Prossor believed that the right color scheme in a hospital room could cure soldiers who were shell-shocked.
He designed a room at Ethel McCaul’s Hospital in London, with sky blue ceilings, delicate green floors and lemon yellow walls.
Although it was acknowledged that the room felt cheerful, an army doctor concluded that this psychological treatment was not as reliable as other therapeutic methods, according to “The Colour Treatment: A Convergence of Art and Medicine at the Red Cross Russell Lea Nerve Home” by Jim Berryman.
There have been few conclusive studies on how the color yellow alone affects people biologically. But Eiseman said the general mood that accompanies the color is mostly a positive one.
In her research, she has seen people associate yellow with even deeper feelings than happiness. “Sometimes people who are very metaphysical will see enlightenment,” she said.
Can yellow treat depression?
Yellow’s mood improving qualities could be assumed to help seasonal affective disorder – a specific type of depression that reoccurs each year during fall and winter, and is believed to be influenced by lack of sunlight.
Some people with seasonal affective disorder choose to wear yellow tinted glasses, which block out blue light rays. These blue light rays are what produce melatonin in the body, and lead to oversleeping; a symptom that can be prevalent in those who have the disorder.