Mental health and living in a small space

Mental health and living in a small space

Small Space Living

Is there a link between mental health and living in a small space? I was recently diagnosed with cancer and was bed-bound or in a restricted space. Here’s my insight.

Spending a lot of time at home recovering from the operation or bed-bound on a hospital ward gave me an opportunity to experience the full impact of small space living. First, I need to define a small space.

What is a small space?

In 2015, the UK government recommended 37 sq m of floor space for a one-person, one-bedroom flat; a two-person, one-bedroom flat should be 50 sq m. But of course, many people are living in much smaller spaces, especially bedsits. The issue isn’t helped by the fact that the UK has the smallest homes in Europe according to research by Cambridge University in 2014. The average new-build home is just 76 sq m in our country, compared to 137 sq m in Denmark (who regularly top the polls for the happiest nation – coincidence?)

So what is it that affects our mental health at home? I argue it's not just the size of space, but also how we use it.

Further evidence of the lack of space in the UK comes from the Local Authority Building Control (LABC) who provide warranties for new-build homes. It has calculated the average UK living room in the 1970s was 25 sq m, today it’s 17 sq m.

While it may be difficult to define the exact measurements of a small space, it’s clear the UK struggles to compete with our neighbours and living space is shrinking.

If we look at the extremes of living space (big mansion vs bedsit) the answer seems an obvious “Yes”, but I don’t believe its that simple. Living in a cupboard, the confines of that area would undoubtedly impact your mental health. Yet curiously living on your own in a mansion may not be any better. Too much space can feel just as uncomfortable. Most of us would probably select a few rooms in a mansion to live in and leave the rest empty.

So what is it that affects our mental health at home? I argue it’s not just the size of space, but also how we use it.

The use of space

An average size room with just a chair would have too much space and not feel homely. By contrast, a room full to the ceiling with ‘stuff’ would feel overwhelming and not relaxing. Balance is the key.

One of the key elements is floor-space. You need enough to easily move around the room without having to walk sideways like a crab or climb over furniture. During my illness I found myself pacing up and down (like a caged animal) to relieve the boredom of laying down, that would have been impossible without floor space.

Another key element is natural light. I found being in a room with just electric light very oppressive, so throw those curtains wide.

The result of shrinking living rooms is a drive to combine the space with kitchen and other spaces in an open-plan environment – an attempt to create the illusion of more space. Yet I believe this can negatively impact mental health, especially if you are sharing the space.

Firstly, you can never escape cooking smells, they permeate everything, and there are no barriers to sound. A persons music or TV choice can become a source of disagreement, as well as their choice of strong-smelling food. Secondly, if you share the space you may feel that you never have time to yourself – important if you have had an argument.

This can all result in a person not looking forward to going home – the one place they should feel at peace. The feeling of being “lucky to have a roof over your head” is replaced by dread.

Mental health solutions

During my time isolated in a small space I found the following very useful for my mental health:

• Tidy up. An untidy room in a small space can seem chaotic. Take time to restore order.
• Excercise. Even in a small space, you can do enough exercise to be out of breath. Endorphins really are happy chemicals.
• Limit consumption. Retail therapy may give a short-term hit of happiness, but long-term it can result in too much clutter. Clutter equals disorder. Do you really need twenty different cushions? And aim to purchase multi-purpose items to save space.
• Talk to someone. Simple, but we don’t always do it. And talk, don’t text or email. Conversations in person or over the phone are far more human.
• Get out! When I was initially recovering from cancer I couldn’t get out of bed (connected to a drip). But I could really feel the benefit the first time I walked around the local park. Don’t stare at the walls.

Thankfully my operation was a success, I am cancer-free (fingers-crossed) and on the long road to recovery. Hopefully, my ‘small space’ experience will be of help to others. If you have your own tips, thoughts or experiences, please comment below. Thanks.


Author: Graham Smith

Graham is the Founder of Hot Tea Workshop. He lives in a small London flat with limited space. His need for multi-purpose furniture was the inspiration for the London Table and sparked his interest in small space living and tiny homes.