Color is not just a visual experience; it is a psychological and cultural phenomenon that profoundly impacts our lives in many ways. One color that has captivated human attention across time and geography is green—a color that embodies the complexity of nature, emotions, and human experiences. It has been extensively studied for its impact on the human brain, mood, and nervous system, and is often associated with nature, growth, and renewal.
“Green is the prime color of the world,
and that from which its loveliness arises.”
Predro Calederon de la Barca
Once upon a time
Green has captivated human imagination since ancient times. Its earliest recorded use dates back to the Egyptian era, where it was associated with Osiris, the god of the afterlife, symbolizing rebirth and regeneration. Egyptian royalty adorned themselves with emerald jewels, and green pigments graced the walls of their lavish palaces.
As time passed, the color became part of Roman, Greek, and Celtic cultures, each attributing it with unique properties. In Roman culture, for instance, green was the color of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty.
In medieval Europe, green began to symbolize chivalry, courtesy, and the joys of love, often appearing in the garments of knights and nobles. Even Shakespeare made frequent use of the color, associating it with jealousy and deceit in works like “Othello.” The historical associations of green are thus varied and profound, making it a color that has long been infused with meaning.
The Psychology of Green: What Does it Really Mean to Us?
As a shade that predominantly appears in nature, green has a calming, soothing effect on the human mind. Psychological studies have shown that people who spend more time in green spaces often report higher levels of well-being. Hospitals, schools, and even prisons have adopted green in various forms to induce a sense of peace among their occupants.
Green is also a color that signifies growth, renewal, and vitality. As plants turn green in spring, the color becomes a symbol of life’s ability to rejuvenate itself. Consider the fresh feeling you get when you walk through a green forest, or the invigorating sensation of seeing lush, green landscape. The color green can also act as a stimulant that invigorates our emotional well-being. Scientists have found that the color green can improve reading ability, suggesting that it could have a stimulating effect on mental sharpness.
Moreover, green is often used in branding to capture attention and convey a message of freshness or novelty. Think about the logos of companies that want to project an image of organic quality, health, or ecological responsibility—green is often a dominant color. This ability of green to both calm and energize is a testament to its complex role in our emotional spectrum.
However, green is not universally calming or positive; its complexities extend into the psychological realm as well. In some contexts, it can represent envy or jealousy, taking on a more negative emotional valence. This duality makes green a fascinating subject of study within psychology, capturing the breadth of human emotion in a single hue.
Green in Religion: From Islam to Hinduism and Judaism
Green’s prominence extends into religious symbolism and practice across various traditions.
In Judaism, while the color green is not as explicitly prominent as in some other religious traditions, it carries its own set of meanings. Greenery is often used in the celebration of the festival of Sukkot, where branches of willow and myrtle along with a palm frond make up the “lulav,” which is used in ritual waving ceremonies. The greenery symbolizes the fertility and vitality of the land, aligning with the agricultural origins of the festival. During Passover, a green vegetable, usually parsley, is included on the Seder plate to symbolize the coming of spring and renewal—themes that resonate throughout the Jewish tradition.
Islam often considers green as the color of paradise and is extensively used in mosques and religious art. The Quran describes the garments and cushions of Paradise as green, solidifying its positive connotations.
Hinduism associated green with the heart chakra, Anahata, believed to be the wellspring of love, warmth, and compassion.
In Christian liturgy, green is the color worn during “Ordinary Time,” symbolizing the period of growth and hope between other significant seasons like Lent and Advent.
Neuroscience and the nervous system
The color green has a number of positive effects on the nervous system and mood. It can help to reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue, and it can improve sleep quality, creativity, and focus.
This is due to the fact that green light has a wavelength that is similar to that of chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants. When we see green light, it stimulates the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of well-being and relaxation. Green light can also help to reduce stress and anxiety, and it can improve sleep quality.
The brain’s emotional processing centers, such as the amygdala and insula, exhibit unique patterns of activation in response to the color green. Neuroimaging studies have revealed increased connectivity between these regions and the prefrontal cortex, indicating heightened emotional regulation and reduced stress responses. The color’s impact on mood is further underscored by its ability to stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Thus, exposure to green spaces or visual stimuli can have a profound influence on mental well-being, leading to reduced anxiety, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive performance.
Furthermore, the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the “rest and digest” response, is activated in green environments. A study demonstrated that exposure to the color green led to enhanced parasympathetic activity and reduced sympathetic activity, contributing to relaxation and a sense of well-being.
Chinese Medicine and the Color Green
In Chinese Medicine, the association of the color green with the Wood element takes on intricate philosophical dimensions that extend to interconnected systems of organs, emotions, and even seasons. At its core, this philosophy espouses a deeply interconnected worldview where every component—be it physical, emotional, or environmental—is part of a greater cosmic balance.
The Wood element, represented by green, is connected to the liver and gallbladder organs.
Green foods like leafy vegetables are often recommended to cleanse the liver and promote this circulation. Philosophically, the liver is viewed as the seat of planning and creativity, functioning as a “General” that lays out the strategic vision for one’s life. It’s not just an organ but a metaphor for how we navigate life’s complexities. When the Wood element is balanced, it promotes smooth decision-making, anchored by a robust liver Qi (energy).
Wood and its color green are associated with the feeling of anger or irritability when out of balance. In balance, however, they are linked with compassion, decisiveness, and the ability for healthy confrontation. This implies that the color green, within this philosophical context, isn’t just a passive aspect of nature but an active facilitator in emotional regulation and relational dynamics.
Wood element correspond with spring, a time of rebirth, growth, and new beginnings. Philosophically, this season represents the “breath of life,” offering a fresh start and the potential for renewal. It encourages personal growth in the same way that plants reach towards the sun after a long winter. The burst of green that comes with spring serves as a visual and symbolic affirmation of life’s cyclical yet progressive nature, echoing the very essence of Wood’s association with growth and forward movement.
In Chinese Medicine, the depth of the color green transcends mere aesthetics to engage with life on multiple scales—from the microcosm of individual organs and emotions to the macrocosm of environmental seasons. It acts as a mirror reflecting the fundamental principles of a philosophy that advocates for balance, harmony, and the interconnectedness of all things.
In Chinese culture, jade, a green gemstone, is also thought to have healing properties, often used in both jewelry and various healing implements.
The impact of green has become a significant niche in the field of nutrition and wellness.
Green foods such as leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables contain a wide variety of beneficial nutrients and compounds that have been shown to promote health in numerous ways. From a scientific perspective, there is substantial research demonstrating the positive effects of increased green food consumption.
Chlorophyll, a pigment that plays a vital role in photosynthesis is responsible for the green color in plants and has garnered attention for its potential health benefits. Studies have explored chlorophyll’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, contributing to its role in detoxification and cellular health. Consuming a diet abundant in green foods provides a nutritional foundation that aligns with the color’s association with renewal and vitality.
One of the most notable components of green vegetables is the antioxidants they contain. Antioxidants help protect cells from damage caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Research has found that antioxidants like beta-carotene, vitamin C and E can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and support immune function. Green foods are among the best sources of dietary antioxidants.
Green vegetables also provide an array of important vitamins and minerals. For example, leafy greens are excellent sources of folate, a B vitamin that is vital for cell growth and replication. Folate deficiency has been linked to birth defects and conditions like anemia. Greens also supply iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Each of these minerals supports various bodily processes – from oxygen transport to bone health to muscle and nerve function.
Fiber is another beneficial nutrient found abundantly in green foods. Fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, promote digestive health, and aid weight management. Greens are among the most fiber-rich food sources available.
Some green foods also contain plant compounds that are being studied for their health-protective abilities. For instance, sulforaphane in broccoli may help prevent cancer by protecting cells from DNA damage. Nitrates in spinach and other leafy greens may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
The color green, through its multifaceted influences on human health, psyche, and overall well-being, emphasizes the intricate ways in which our environment shapes our health. As modern life often distances us from nature, conscious efforts to embrace green in our surroundings, our diets, and our daily rituals, we can harness its innate qualities to cultivate a harmonious and enriching life and pave the way for holistic health, happiness, and harmony.
- Andrew J. Elliot / Markus A. Majer – Color Psychology: Effects of Perceiving Color on Psychological Functioning in Humans (2014)
- Ben Y.F. Wong/Wang Kin Chiu/ Wendy F.M. Chan/Ying Yu Lam – A Review Study of a Green Diet and Healthy Ageing (2021)
- Samantha Smith/Angela Paladino – Eating Clean and Green? Investigating Consumer Motivations Towards the Purchase of Organic Food (2010)
- Liu Rui Hai – Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combinations of phytochemicals (2003)
- Naz Kaya – Relationship between color and emotion (2004)