Is it really possible to feel instant joy by simply focusing on mundane, “silly” things — houseplants, a colorful lamp, cute coffee mugs? Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee seems to think so. In “Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness,” Fetell Lee ponders why we get tingles when we gaze at a starry night sky or why we can sit for hours watching the waves lap up against the sandy shore. She arrives at one conclusion: mundane spaces and objects we interact with every day can boost our happiness levels.
We sat down with Fetell Lee to find out how to design places that bring us instant joy:
Q: You say there’s a difference between joy and happiness. What is that?
A: As a culture, we are obsessed with happiness, but we often overlook joy. Though these two words are used interchangeably, they are actually different concepts. Happiness is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time. It incorporates a range of factors: how we feel about our work, whether we feel like we have a sense of meaning and purpose, how connected we feel to other people.
As a result, happiness can sometimes feel a bit vague. Some parts of our lives are going great while others are struggling, and we’re not always sure how happy we are.
But joy is much simpler and more immediate. Joy is an intense, momentary experience of positive emotion, one that is expressed in direct physical expressions like smiling and laughter.
Moments of joy seem small. They might last as long as a few hours or just a few seconds. But over time these little moments start to add up, relieving stress, connecting us to others, increasing our resilience, and cultivating a more positive outlook on life.
Q: What are your thoughts on looking inward to find joy versus looking at the outside world?
A: Both are important and there’s no magic ratio. The reason I emphasize looking at the world around us is that psychology has traditionally overlooked the power of our surroundings to influence our emotions and wellbeing.
We often hear about the value of meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude. However, we rarely hear that, for example, sunlight regulates our serotonin levels. Or that studies have shown that light therapy can be as effective in treating depression as medication.
There is an emerging body of research that shows that natural elements, light, color, ordered patterns, and round shapes can influence our emotions for the better. Still, this is not reflected in the places where we spend most of our time. Many urbanites don’t live within easy walking distance of green space. Our offices are dull and grey. So for many people, there are small changes that can make a big difference in our day-to-day wellbeing.
Ingrid’s “instant joy” list of things
Q: What are your top five seemingly mundane spaces and objects that bring you instant joy?
- Pops of bright color: Bright colors are universally associated with joy. People working in more colorful offices are more alert, confident, joyful, and friendly than people working in drab spaces. A colorful lamp, cushion, or coffee mug can perk up a drab spot.
- Houseplants: Houseplants have been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve mood, and even increase generosity. I consistently find that the transformation even one plant brings to a space is dramatic.
- Cute things: Puppies, babies, and cartoons stimulate our playful impulses, a response that may have evolved to motivate us to engage deeply with children, deepening our bonds with them. Playing with a kid in your life or watch ing the dogs frisk at the dog park are two surefire ways to bring out the inner child.
- Things organized neatly: Our eyes are exquisitely sensitive to symmetry and repetition. A well-arranged closet or a regular pattern creates a sense of harmony that sets the brain at ease.
- Small surprises: We wrap gifts, hide Easter eggs, and play peekaboo because we find joy in good surprises. You can replicate this by painting the inside of your closet or drawers a bright color, wearing fun socks, or hiding something joyful in a loved one’s coat or bag for them to find later.
Q: When shouldn’t we force ourselves to find joy in our surroundings?
A: I don’t think we should ever force ourselves to find joy in our surroundings. When I use the term “joyspotting,” what I mean is being more attentive to the joy that happens to be in our midst. There are some places — almost always manmade places — that are designed in joyless ways.
Many prisons are designed explicitly to be joyless, because of a belief that the experience of incarceration should be punitive.
Many housing projects are designed with an absence of joy because of a belief that joy is something that is a luxury, not a necessity, a vital part of the human experience. So, just as I would never say that you should force yourself to be happy, I would also never say that someone should force themselves to find joy in their surroundings.
What we can do, however, is take small steps to increase the joy we find in the world around us. We do that by adding small amounts of color, nature, light, and other elements.
It’s in the most desolate places that these interventions have the highest impact. For example, a recent study in Philadelphia turned vacant lots into green spaces.
People living near these transformed green spaces experienced a 41% decrease in symptoms of depression. But for people living below the poverty line, that decrease was 68%.
Q: What about those in concentration camps who managed to keep their sanity?
A: This is not an area I’ve studied, so I’m not going to speak to this. I have, however, heard stories of small joys being nurtured within concentration camps. For example, there’s a story of women in a camp marching to work in straight lines that bend to protect a flower springing up out of the dirt. In places of despair, small joys that we might take for granted take on poignant resonance.
Q: How would you convince the skeptics that your methods are effective?
A: An example that shows the power of this approach comes from Japan.
Tokyo suffers from a high suicide rate, and many of those suicides occur as a result of people jumping in front of commuter trains. To combat this problem, train operators have been installing barriers on the platforms. Because many stations are old, this process has been slow and time-consuming.
Ten years ago, the train companies began implementing a novel solution. They installed blue LED light panels on the ends of the platforms, often in the least trafficked and most high-risk areas.
Blue light is similar in hue to the light in the morning, and has been shown to increase alertness and may have a positive effect on mood.
A recent study of this intervention revealed that the light panels are responsible for an 84% reduction in suicide attempts in Tokyo stations.
The research in this area is getting more and more robust, so I don’t think it’s about convincing skeptics so much as making the research more accessible to everyone.
Keeping a joy journal doesn’t make you childish
Q: Are there people who unknowingly don’t allow themselves to feel joy?
A: We’re all born with the capacity to feel instant joy. In fact, joy is one of six universal primary emotions, expressed in the same way throughout the world. You can see this if you look at children, who need no education to understand what joy is and how to feel it.
But as we get older, we often find that expressing joy or being playful or exuberant can lead to us being judged as childish or unserious. So we start to hold ourselves back from joy.
Often we do this unconsciously. We prioritize work over hobbies or time with friends or family. We try not to laugh too loudly. We act and dress our age. What happens is that, over time, some of us start to forget what brings us joy.
The easiest way to generate instant joy is to keep a joy journal. There is a FREE template on my site. Essentially, start to pay attention when you smile, laugh, or find yourself saying “wow!” Notice where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing. This small exercise can help you get back in touch with your natural impulse toward joy, and identify the building blocks of a more joyful life.