A few months ago I was hassling a friend about wanting to see his new house. He explained he’d been hesitant to invite anyone over because it just didn’t feel like “him” yet.

When he moved in, the color of the walls was drab, distorting the daylight when it flowed in. It was crammed full of furniture that wasn’t to his taste, and the furniture that was there wasn’t necessarily meeting his needs. For instance, he had been forced to repurpose an antique china cabinet as a make-shift wardrobe.

As the weeks wore on, he began changing the space. He painted the walls a bright, fresh white to help illuminate the environment and make it feel more expansive. He removed about a third of the furniture, making room for artifacts of his own. He discarded the china cabinet and replaced it with a wardrobe he found and even spent time to refurbish it himself.

One day, he proudly sent me a photo of the newly converted environment. I was immediately transported into a space that felt like him: calm, inviting, warm, and unique. I could see and feel him through the configuration of the home, and by his eagerness to share, it was clear he finally felt he could too.

In a recent report by Kingfisher and the Happiness Research Institute exploring what makes a “happy home”, their team found that one of the strongest predictors for happiness is the ability for us to have our emotional needs met and reflected back in our spaces. In particular, pride seems to be most important emotions amongst the homeowners surveyed. Essentially the report highlights that those of us who have the most pride in our homes also tend to feel happiest with those spaces.

Beyond that, results showed that feeling as though our spaces are actually a part of who we are is another important factor that contributes to our overall happiness. This sense of identification with our home is closely linked to how proud we feel about our space. Makes sense, right? But the bigger and perhaps more interesting question might be, why are pride and feeling as though our homes are an extension of ourselves so important?

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When we feel pride we are expressing a deep satisfaction for an achievement that’s been mastered. In these moments, we’ve reached some sense of fulfillment and gratitude for what’s been accomplished. Part of why this sense of fulfillment emerges is because that achievement is reflective of some truth we believe. Our spaces have the ability to reflect our truest selves — who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be. They reflect our values, our behaviors, and even our relationships. So when we express a sense of pride through our homes, what we are really doing is feeling a sense of pride in ourselves and our lives.

By exploring our most intimate spaces researchers have been able to uncover how our identities and emotions are reflected through space. Homes reveal our inner-most feelings and ways we perceive ourselves. They act as a canvas on which we display ourselves to those around us. Because homes reflect our identities and emotions, we use them to not only express who we are, but also to regulate the emotions we need and want to feel in order to thrive in our daily lives.

We shape our spaces to reflect ourselves in a number of ways. We do this by deliberately displaying items that personify pieces of ourselves in which we particularly identify. For example, the cat mug on my desk reflects that I am a cat person which in and of itself begins to paint a picture of my personality. The photos of my loved ones and those of my travel adventures express my high regard for my intimate relationships and affinity for exploration. And the hundreds of books and CDs flanking an entire wall of my living room convey my love of being swept up in mental and sensory experiences. These reflections of self not only provide insight about who we are to visitors, but they also reaffirm back to us what we value.

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Aside from these intentional cues about our identities, there are also inadvertent traces of our true selves that get deposited in our spaces as we live out our lives. The checklist posted on your cabinet reminding you to make sure you have all of your belongings on the way out the door signals the business of your life, but also your tendency to be forgetful and desire for order. Or the lunch box, plastic baggies, and thermos you place on the counter indicate your intention to pack your child’s lunch in the morning and your conscientious proclivities.

Features such as the paint color, lighting, and textures in our homes also all have the power to make us feel a particular way. A sunny, light blue bedroom with plush carpeting and crisp white linens sets the stage for tranquility, whereas a bedroom sprinkled with tea lights, dark wood floors, and mocha walls create a more intimate atmosphere. Of course these design elements influence our thoughts and feelings, but so do specific sentimental possessions we might own. A treasured heirloom may remind you of your favorite grandparent whenever you walk into a room, or a movie stub from a first date may remind you of the important bond you share with your partner each time you look at it.

So, why should it matter that we can see ourselves through our spaces? It matters because spaces afford us the opportunity to get to know our true selves, and help shape who we might strive to be. Aside from reflecting back our identities, our homes can be a tool with which we reinforce the qualities in ourselves that we want to enhance, and tweak those we’d like to shift.

Something important to remember about the fact that our spaces are a repository of who we are, is that who we are is always changing. Though our personalities, and for the most part our values, are stable throughout our lifetime, our needs and the details of our lives are always in flux. As we bring new partners, family members, friends, and pets into our lives, our spaces must shift to accommodate these new additions. Or as we change our careers, hobbies, and interests, these shifts ripple through our environments. Our homes are not only a place where we can see these changes, they are a place we can adjust to make room and support these new aspects of self.

How can you use this information in your own life? Take some time to think about what your home says about you. Look around the rooms and areas you most frequently use. How do they make you feel? Are they really reflective of who you think you are? Do you like and are you proud of what you see?

If you don’t feel your environment aligns with you or who you want to be, don’t despair. All this recognition has done is help you shed light on where you’d like to grow and set new goals. Use your home to its full potential; experiment with it, tweak it so that it becomes a space that truly supports you.

It can feel a bit overwhelming when we recognize we don’t feel the way we want to feel in our homes. It can be daunting to think of reformatting the whole space to fit you. But remember, like you, your space is ever-evolving and a work in progress. There is no right or wrong to what your space looks like, just as there is no one way you should be. Like building any relationship, shaping your space is a process. It takes time, and though sometimes challenging, it can be incredibly rewarding when you invest the time and energy into growing it into what you truly want.

Written by

Social scientist at the Center for the Built Environment, UC Berkeley. I help people connect to and craft spaces that best fit their lives.

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