How to Rediscover Joy—and Eliminate Killjoys

Photo courtesy of Chloé Horseman for Ellery

How to Rediscover Joy—and Eliminate Killjoys

The last time you felt completely free. The last time you laughed, so hard. The last time the world seemed magical. How it felt when you were surprised by a simple pleasure.

These are the kinds of things Brooklyn-based designer and writer Ingrid Fetell Lee wants to know about in her workshops, an extension of her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. Lee has found that people lose touch with the feeling of joy entirely; we don’t even really register the fleeting moments when they come. Her goal: to help you find that feeling again and learn practical ways to bring it to the surface as often as possible.

And if it all seems silly or juvenile to you, you’re not alone—that’s part of our culture. But sometimes, says Fetell Lee, feeling childish works.

A Q&A with
Ingrid Fetell Lee

Why do we overlook joy in our lives?

We often use the words “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably, but they’re two different things: Happiness measures how good we feel over time, whereas joy measures how good we feel in the moment.

We associate happiness with big milestones in life; we associate it with getting married or buying a house or getting a promotion. We often postpone joy while we’re pursuing happiness. When we pursue happiness, it takes us away from joy. We don’t spend time with our family or friends because we’re working hard to get that promotion. We don’t spend time or money on our hobbies and the little things in life that bring us joy because we’re trying to buy that house.

What we often find is that when we get to that milestone, there’s always something new we want. That big idea of happiness is very elusive. But when we focus on joy, there are many little things that happen that actually make happiness more attainable. Joy connects us to other people; joy makes us more emotionally resilient over time; joy improves our health; joy makes us more productive at work. So there are all these ways in which joy actually increases our happiness, but we overlook it. When we focus on joy, happiness finds us.

What does it mean to rediscover joy?

Because we associate joy with childhood or things that are childish, there’s a cultural bias that equates those two things. We let go of joy as we get older; we feel pressured to put it aside. This can lead us to feel, at moments in our adult lives, that we’ve lost touch with joy. The most powerful way to reacquaint ourselves with joy is to actually connect with the physical sensation of it.

If I asked you to think about what anxiety feels like in your body, you could tell me immediately, right? We all know what that feels like: butterflies, our hands get sweaty, our body tenses up. We forget that joy, just like anxiety, is an emotion, and it has a physical feeling, too.

Think about a moment of joy, and notice what it feels like in your body.

Not everyone feels all of these exact things, but there are certain things that people notice. They might notice that they’re smiling, and that it happens automatically. That they feel physically light in their body. That is something we see across cultures: Joy is lightness, and sadness is heaviness. People also talk about a sense of radiating or expanding. In a moment of fear, for example, in all this negative emotion, our body starts to contract. It’s a defense mechanism. Whereas in moments of joy, our body expands. If your team is winning, you throw your arms into the air, your shoulders expand, your posture expands—you take up space.

The other thing people often say to me in workshops is that they feel warm, that they’re experiencing a feeling of warmth. Physiologically that has to do with the increased blood flow that happens when we experience a moment of joy.

So the very first thing I tell people is: Tune back in to what is happening in your body when you feel a moment of joy. You may realize you’re feeling joy multiple times a day but not noticing it.

What are the most common barriers to experiencing joy?

In my workshops, I’ve noticed three consistent barriers that confine people’s joy:

1. Awareness: Many people I meet are so disconnected from joy that they aren’t even really familiar with what joy feels like in their body or what types of things bring them joy. A joy journal is a good place to start: Pay attention for a week or two to all the moments when you find yourself smiling or laughing or feeling a sense of joy wash over you. Notice where you are, whom you’re with, and what you’re doing—those can all be clues to the kinds of things that might bring you more joy. It’s easiest to do right after you feel it, because these moments are so small and fleeting, you can get to the end of the day and be like, I didn’t feel any joy. But actually it’s possible that they just passed so quickly. The goal is to notice them, and once you notice what is causing them, you can re-create those conditions in your life. You don’t have to wait for joy to find you.

2. Time and space: We’re all busy. We feel like there are so many things we have to get done in a day, so the things that bring us joy are pushed further down the to-do list. Once you’ve identified some things that bring you joy, think about how you can intentionally build more of those moments into your life. It could be changing something you already spend time on, like your exercise routine: It doesn’t have to be a chore. How did you move when you were a child that gave you joy? How can you build that into your life again? Maybe you want to take a dance class, or maybe it’s hiking or swimming. The other part is budgeting for joy—actually recognizing that if joy is a priority to you, then it’s not wasteful to spend money on art supplies or to pursue a hobby, for example.

3. Permission: Even if you know what brings you joy, even if you have space for it in your life, this can be the hardest one. There’s so much judgment attached to joy, it can be hard to give ourselves permission to experience it. It feels like a distraction from our goals. We’re often made to feel that it’s self-indulgent to pursue joy or just engage in joy. For me, I derive a lot of joy from dressing up, but for the longest time as an adult, I would feel guilt for wearing colorful dresses or shoes with glitter, etc. Allowing myself to feel joy from clothes and not dismiss it as shallow opened up a whole other source of daily joy for me.

What are the common forces that diminish joy in people’s lives?

The same way that you might take inventory of the things that bring you joy, you can start to notice what’s sapping your joy. I call those things killjoys. When I feel most joyless, what’s going on around me? What am I doing? Where am I? Awareness can help you avoid those things or change them.

Looking at your life, you might realize that in the past, being outdoors has brought you great joy and helped you feel free. But now you live in a city, you work behind a desk, you don’t have a car, and you rarely ever spend time outdoors. This is a common one that I encounter.

The challenge then becomes, Okay, well how can you get to nature more often? Is there a park that you could bike to, to read on the weekends? Could you rent a Zipcar? You could start a garden project or research community gardens near you. Maybe on your next vacation you want to make sure to go to a place where you’re making contact with nature. Adding some plants to your home or your desk might add joy that you experience every day, however small.

The key is to look at your life and work to put yourself in the path of joy more often.

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a Brooklyn-based designer and writer whose work focuses on the way that design affects our health and happiness. As the founder of The Aesthetics of Joy, she empowers people to find more joy in daily life through design. 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. The Joyspotter’s Guide, Lee’s latest free resource designed to help you find joy in your surroundings, is available for download now.