The colour psychology of yellow: its surprising impact on our mood

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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We break down the psychology behind our love for this bright hue

From warm splashes of sunlight gathering on a windowsill in the early morning, to the colour of traffic lights on the road or even just the banana you’re planning to eat at work, the colour yellow is almost everywhere we look. Don’t believe me? Take a moment to glance around you and I’m pretty sure you’ll spot at least one yellow object in your periphery.

But does living in a yellow-filled world have any effect on us psychologically? Googling the question “how does yellow make you feel?” pings back over 835million results, with websites, message boards and social media feeds all debating the psychological benefits – or otherwise – of the colour yellow. Some advocate it as making them feel happy and joyful, while others are less than impressed – a quick scan reveals that yellow is also associated with feelings of envy and anger, and can even bring out irritability and anxiety in some.

For a while, the colour yellow had a surprisingly bad rep – due, in part, to the words of “colour authority” Carlton Wagner. Wagner carved out a successful career in the eighties and nineties by advising brands on what colours to use to advertise their products, all under the umbrella of his own company, the Wagner Institute for Colour Research, based in California. He made absolutely no secret of his hatred for the colour yellow.

“Never paint a nursery yellow,” he declared in 1992, claiming that the colour could activate the anxiety centre of the brain, causing upset to both babies and humans.

“In infants, it results in crying,” he continued. “In adults, it results in shortness of temper. We notice a lot of fighting.”

Does the colour yellow make babies anxious?

The claim wasn’t based on any solid evidence, but the rumour that yellow can agitate babies persists today – just ask Google whether you should paint a baby’s nursery yellow, and millions of results will pop up, gravely urging you to reconsider. The top entry states “too much or too bright yellow can agitate a baby” (although conversely, a more subtle yellow can “promote concentration and emotive thoughts”. Make of that what you will.)

Despite Wagner’s crusade against yellow, other experts are more optimistic about the emotions the colour can evoke. Leatrice Eiseman, a colour specialist and executive director of the Pantone Colour Institute, has been conducting colour word association studies on people for 30 years – and she has found they have much more positive reactions to the colour.

Eiseman discovered that most people commonly associate the hue with the words sunshine, warmth, cheer, happiness and even playfulness. We see the sun as yellow, and this in turn plays a huge role in how the colour can make us feel.

“Give any child a box of crayons and they reach for the yellow crayon,” Eiseman told CNN. “Invariably in the upper right hand corner or left hand corner will appear the ball of sun and often with the rays emanating out.”

It’s a familiar picture that most of us will have drawn, probably numerous times, over the course of our childhoods (and maybe into adulthood – who knows). Many of our associations with the sun are positive. Sunshine brightens our days and keeps us warm. A decent bout of summer sun is associated with long holidays, plenty of ice cream and the opportunity to crack on with the pile of books we’ve been meaning to read, currently mounted in a Jenga-like pile on our bedside table. It’s that feeling of instant warmth and happiness you’re enveloped in when you step out of a fridge-like plane into the warmer climes of a foreign country – or even the UK, if this summer’s heatwave is anything to go by.

And in fact, the UK was one of the first recorded places in the world to use the colour yellow to try and make people happy. Back in 1917, a “colourist” named Howard Kemp Prossor painted the walls of a hospital room yellow to try and lift the spirits of shell shocked soldiers who had fought in World War I.

Eiseman even suggested to CNN that “sometimes people who are very metaphysical will see enlightenment” when they look at the colour yellow.

So what are you waiting for? Grab a banana, stare at some traffic lights, and try to get as much sunshine into your day as possible. It could just make you happier. has had a yellow makeover on 15 August, to celebrate our Yellow Issue and pay homage to the colour of the season. Read more about the most playful shade of all here.

Images: Unsplash