Forget Happiness—Pursue Joy
She makes a lot of sense (of course): What does a state of happiness even look like, and how could you be human and in this world and even come close to achieving it?
What’s helpful, Brooklyn-based designer and writer Ingrid Fetell Lee suggests, is to instead turn your focus to joy. “Before I began to research joy, I saw it as this intangible, ephemeral thing that just sort of floats past us and we have to catch as it drifts by,” she says. “And the more I dug into it, the more I realized that as a culture, we pursue happiness relentlessly—but we overlook joy.”
In her book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Fetell Lee creates a compelling case for the pursuit of joy, dispelling a lot of myths along the way: Joyful moments may be fleeting, but they’re not necessarily a passive force. You can actively weave them into your day, into your life, and tune into them all around you.
A Q&A with Ingrid Fetell Lee
Happiness is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives, and it’s often measured over time.
Happiness includes many different factors: How we feel about our work, whether we feel like we have a sense of meaning and purpose. How we feel about our health and also our relationships. All these different factors go into whether or not we’re happy. Happiness can sometimes be a little bit vague. You can go through these periods where you’re like, Am I happy? Am I not happy? Some things are good; some things are not so good. And we’re sort of processing all of that as a whole to come up with this determination of whether or not we’re happy.
Joy is much simpler and more immediate. Psychologists define joy as an intense momentary experience of positive emotion. It can be measured through direct physical expression. So the feeling of smiling, laughter, and wanting to jump up and down. We get that feeling when something gives us a spark of joy. So in sum, to make it simple, happiness is something that we measure over time. Joy is about feeling good in the moment, and it’s really about these small and simple moments.
Joy is a universal human emotion, and we are all capable of feeling it. If you look at children, you can see that joy is sort of effortless. Kids naturally find joy in the world around them. As we get older, we are pressured to put aside a lot of the things that bring us joy. We have to act serious, and we have to stop wearing so much color so we can look serious. We don’t play as much. We don’t even take all of our vacation days in the US, which are like our joy days. So our culture has a bias toward seriousness, cynicism, coolness, and distance—as opposed to exuberance, enthusiasm, and vibrancy. Those are the things that really bring us joy.
Sometimes we have to work to bring joy into our lives. But fundamentally it is far easier to create more moments of joy and design joy into our lives than it is to think about how to make ourselves happier.
Happiness is bigger and more complex. Joy is often about remembering what gives us joy and leaning into those things. There are also ways to design joy physically into our environment. Which is a bit counterintuitive: A lot of people are taught that we’re supposed to find joy within. But in fact there are lots of ways to find it in the world around us.
For a long time, the discipline of psychology really focused on what’s happening inside of us, as opposed to how our surroundings influence our emotions. But there’s a pretty broad base of research that shows there’s a profound connection between the physical world around us and the emotional world within us. For example, studies show that people working in more vibrant, colorful offices are more joyful. They’re also more alert and confident and friendly. There’s also a ton of research on the way that nature affects our minds, and that being out in nature influences a part of the brain involved in rumination over problems. Nature quiets that part of the brain so that we are less likely to ruminate, and we literally feel more carefree. Even just bringing plants inside can have some of those effects.
Color and brightness: We often think about color in terms of hue; we think about red versus blue versus yellow. But the color isn’t what matters; it’s how pure the color is. The brighter the color, the more pigment that’s in the color, the more associated it will be with joy. Darkness, or dimness, is generally associated with sadness. Those are universal associations.
Round shapes: When researchers put people into functional MRI machines and showed them pictures of angular objects, they found that a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with unconscious fear and anxiety, lights up. When they looked at round objects, the amygdala stayed silent.
There is something in our brains that finds a sense of ease and playfulness around curves. Researchers speculate that this comes from the fact that we evolved in a world where sharp things in nature were often dangerous. Antlers, teeth, thorns, jagged rocks—all of those things require caution. Our brains evolved to be cautious around angular shapes, whereas round shapes bring out a natural playfulness in us, an ease.
The example I always give is if you have an angular coffee table, everyone’s going to move more slowly. It’s going to be more formal. But if you have a round one, it lets you be more spontaneous and playful because you’re not worried about bumping into it. That’s something that your brain is going through all the time. If you have a house full of angular shapes, even if they’re not in your direct path, your brain is sort of processing that as an angular and possibly an unsafe environment.
Symmetry and balance: We have a natural attraction to symmetry, balance, and repeating patterns.
Researchers at the University of Chicago did a study where they showed people pictures of either asymmetric environments—environments that had a lot of visual disorder—or environments that had a lot of visual order, with symmetrical, even angles. What they found is that when people looked at asymmetrical environments they were more likely to cheat on a math test. We’ve been taught to think about clutter as something that has a cognitive load, that to have clutter around is distracting. But it’s actually about the shape of the clutter when you reduce it down: It’s angular and asymmetric. It’s sort of disordered visually, and that makes our brain have to work a lot harder. In an orderly environment, our awareness can go on into the background, but when we have a lot of disorder, it can be anxiety-provoking.
Bring in pops of color: It doesn’t have to be a lot. One of the things that I really love to do is paint a front door a bright color. Because it’s the first thing that you see when you come home every day, and the last thing you see when you leave. It also puts joy out into your neighborhood. It changes the way that your house engages with the world.
Wearing more color does the same thing. When you wear a bright color, people respond in a certain way. They smile instinctively. Joy is contagious: When people smile at you, you tend to smile back. And that can create a virtuous, joyful circle.
Try to create lines of symmetry. Make sure that things are lined up in your home. Create symmetrical arrangements of objects. If you have a collection of something, arranging them in repeating patterns or symmetrical arrangements can create a feeling of joy.
Bring the outside in. House plants and flowers are one way to do that.
Find ways to build little surprises into your space. That could be lining your drawers with brightly colored or patterned paper, so that when you open them in the morning, you have this surprising pop of joy. I have stripes painted on the inside of my closet. It’s something I don’t see all the time, but when I open the closet door, I get this little burst of joy.
In my desk at work, when I worked in a more traditional office, I used to keep a little dish of shells from the beach. They’re symmetrical; they have these organic curves that are joyful. When I opened the drawer, it would be this little surprise that would remind me of other joyful times.
Yes, in a profound way. Research shows that experiencing little moments of joy on a regular basis reduces stress. When we undergo something very stressful, if we have a moment of joy, it can actually speed the physical recovery from stress, too. Over time, that can have a positive effect on the cardiovascular system. Joy has even been connected in some studies to longevity.
Joy also has effects on our mind. In some studies, people are up to 12 percent more productive when they are feeling joy. There’s also research that shows, for example, negotiators are more likely to reach win-win agreements when they are feeling joy. Businesspeople take account of more scenarios when they’re making decisions. Joy seems to sharpen our minds and increase our cognitive flexibility.
There’s also research that connects experiences of joy, and particularly sharing joy with other people, to improved relationships. When we share little moments of joy with other people, it forms a signal that lets them know that we’re actually going to be there for them not just when things are good but when times are tough.
Joy is a contagious emotion, and one of the more intriguing findings is that joy makes us more physically attractive. Scientists have found that when supposedly average-looking faces are smiling, people rate them as more attractive than “good-looking” faces that are not smiling. So when we exhibit joy, we actually end up attracting others, which of course makes us feel more connected to the world around us.
The aesthetics of joy are often associated with women. Abundance, vibrant color, curves. All of those things tend to be associated with a more feminine aesthetic. Whereas grey, straight lines and linear shapes are typically associated with the masculine.
In our culture, we see an equation between these aesthetics of joy that are considered feminine and childishness. They’re also considered primitive and unsophisticated. When you lump all those things together, women feel pressured. I certainly for a long time felt the pressure not to wear color because I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I talked to many women who say they won’t buy themselves flowers because it feels self-indulgent.
We hold ourselves back from joy to fit in with the culture. Women are often the ones who feel most restrained. Sometimes men have the same issue because men are supposed to meet this very masculine aesthetic even more so. They don’t have permission to be silly or to wear color, or their masculinity is questioned.
Where does this come from? You have to look deep in our culture. You can look at Goethe, who in the Theory of Colors in 1810 wrote that savage nations, uneducated people, and children typically prefer bright colors, whereas people of refinement avoid colors. He set up this equation for us in the 1800s. And that’s still with us. There’s a lot of veiled racism in that toward cultures that have exuberant aesthetics and also a lot of joy and emotional expressiveness close to the surface.
We tend to suppress that in cultures that are primarily derived from European culture. We suppress that joy and don’t express it as much visually. There’s a historical precedent for it. For a lot of people that comes as a relief to hear: Oh wait, I’m not crazy. I’m not making this up that I feel judged for the way that I want to express my joy.
Ingrid Fetell Lee is a Brooklyn-based designer and writer whose work focuses on the way that design affects our health and happiness. As founder of The Aesthetics of Joy and in her role as an IDEO fellow, she empowers people to find more joy in daily life through design. Fetell Lee holds a master’s in industrial design from the Pratt Institute and a bachelor’s in English and creative writing from Princeton University. She is the author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.
We hope you enjoy the books recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.