hdagli/iStockPhoto

What makes people happy when skies are gray? The color yellow

Yellow is usually the color of happy, joyful emotions. But according to a new study, not all people associate the sunshiney shade with good vibes.

To find out what factors might play a role, researchers tested a new hypothesis: What if people’s physical surroundings affect their feelings about certain colors? For instance, if someone lived in cold and rainy Finland, would they feel differently about the color yellow from someone who lived near the Sahara Desert?

The researchers looked at color-emotion data from an ongoing international survey of 6625 people in 55 countries. The survey asks participants to rate 12 colors on how closely they are associated with feelings including joy, pride, fear, and shame.

Yellow is not so fun in the sun

The darker the shade in the below map, the higher the likelihood of people associating the color yellow with joyful emotions. Overall, people were more likely to associate yellow with joy when they lived in rainier countries that lay farther from the equator, researchers report in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

80–90 70–80 60–70 50–60 40–50 30–40 20–30 10–20 0–10 No data Likelihood of yellow-joy association (%)
A. Cuadra/Science

The team looked only at the data for yellow, and analyzed how different factors—including hours of sunshine, hours of daylight, and amount of rainfall—lined up with the emotions people reported for the color. The two best predictors of how people felt about yellow were the annual amount of rainfall, and how far they lived from the equator, the team reports this month in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The farther someone lived from the equator, the more likely they were to appreciate some bright hues: In Egypt, the likelihood of yellow being associated with joy was just 5.7%, whereas in chilly Finland it was 87.7%. In the United States, with its moderate climate and amber waves of grain, people's yellow-joy association levels were between 60% and 70%.

The team also checked whether associations changed with the season—whether, for example, people in a certain country liked yellow more in the winter than they did in the summer. The researchers found that opinions about color remained fairly constant year-round—even when the weather changed, the data on yellow-joy associations were as good as gold.