Stock Adobe 2019 Joy

Small moments of joy are often the first to go when we're stressed or in a crisis. But they're actually a tool to restore our emotional well-being, says designer Ingrid Fetell Lee.

  • June 18th 2019

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a designer and author whose work reveals the hidden influence of our surroundings on our emotions and well-being. As founder of the website The Aesthetics of Joy and author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, she seeks to empower people to find more joy in life and work through design. Lee’s work is informed by more than twelve years of experience in design and branding, most recently as design director at IDEO. Her TED talk, Where Joy Hides and How to Find It, has been viewed over 17 million times. She will speak in the 2019 program track Hope Made Visible: Innovation by Design.

We caught up with her about the difference between happiness and joy, how our surroundings impact our well-being, and why we should give ourselves permission to feel joy.

In your book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, you highlight how surface-level changes, like repainting buildings in bright colors, revitalizes cities. How can such a simple cosmetic alteration lead to profound systematic change?

Early on in my research, I discovered a story about a mayor of a struggling city who began painting vibrant designs on the downtown buildings out of desperation. Edi Rama was elected mayor of Tirana, Albania in 2000, ten years after the fall of communism. The city was rife with organized crime and corruption, and because the city was so bankrupt that they couldn't afford to collect the garbage, it just piled up in the streets. But shortly after Rama's painting project began, he noticed surprising effects. People stopped littering and shopkeepers started removing the metal grates from their storefront windows, saying the streets felt safer even though there were the same number of police on the streets. And then people started to pay their municipal taxes! Five years after this began, the number of business in Tirana had tripled and the tax revenue had increased by a factor of six.

I was shocked by this story at first. After all, we tend to think of elements like color, pattern, and shape as decorative. They might be pretty or interesting to look at, but we're conditioned to believe that they don't have much of an influence on our well-being. Psychology as a whole reinforces this assumption, focusing almost exclusively on the role of inner states — thoughts, behaviors, and biochemistry — on our mental health. But my research shows that our surroundings have a profound influence on both individual and social well-being. A cross-cultural study of workplaces shows that people working in more colorful environments are more alert, confident, friendly, and joyful than those working in drab spaces. Recent research has also shown that people are more trusting of others in the presence of a rainbow crosswalk than a standard black and white one. The way our environment looks changes how we feel and how behave toward others, and these effects, added up over time, can have a big impact on a community.

You’ve written that "joy is a form of resilience." What does this mean, and how can individuals and communities use joy to be more resilient?

Little moments of joy are often the first thing to go when we're stressed, anxious, or in a crisis. Sometimes it's because joy feels unimportant; too trivial to matter when there are more serious things that need to be dealt with. It's tempting to postpone joy when we're in an intense period at work, for example, and try to push through until we've achieved our goal. I also talk to many people who feel guilty experiencing or expressing joy while others around them are struggling.

But research shows that little moments of joy can help our bodies recover from the physiological effects of stress, and they can help us find meaning and purpose in tragic events. Rather than being a distraction, when we allow ourselves a moment of joy, it creates a respite that makes us more resilient. And the same is true of our relationships. Celebrating small joys with others deepens our bonds and increases our sense of trust that we'll be there for each other when things go wrong.

This is true now more than ever. We live in a heavy time, one with big problems and what sometimes feels like a relentless stream of bad news. Little moments of joy can help restore the emotional resources that become depleted when we are dealing with so much stress and worry, so that we have more energy and resolve to take action.

What is the difference between happiness and joy? Is one more important than the other for long-term well-being?

We use these two words interchangeably a lot in our culture, but they're actually different things. 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.

I would observe that we often obsess over happiness, and in the process, we overlook joy. We tend to equate happiness with large milestones like getting promoted, buying a house, or finding a partner. And in the pursuit of these things we forgo the small, everyday joys, such as spending time with friends and family or doing our hobbies or taking the scenic route to work. But these small moments of joy add up over time. Not only do they make us more connected and more resilient, but they also increase our productivity (by up to 12%, according to one study), improve our decision-making, and even make us more attractive to others. So in a meaningful way, while the pursuit of happiness takes us away from joy, happiness finds us when we focus on joy.

As a designer, much of your work is focused on injecting joy into our surroundings. When it comes to our lives, how can we cultivate joy?

A practice I love for cultivating joy is called joyspotting. This is simply just looking around and tuning your attention to the joy that exists in your immediate environment. You might notice the bright yellow of a stranger's raincoat, a flower growing out of the sidewalk, or the way the light dances off the buildings around you. It could be tiny, but just taking time to notice something that lifts your spirits can be a reminder that joy is all around us if we bother to look for it.

The other thing that's really important is to give yourself permission to do what feels joyful to you. Joy is often associated with childhood, and children do seem to access joy effortlessly. But as we get older being exuberant or playful or colorful can put us at risk for seeming unserious or frivolous. So we start to hold ourselves back from joy, and over time we feel it less and less. Reconnecting with joy doesn't mean being a child, but it could mean thinking about something you loved to do when you were younger that you stopped doing for some reason. How could you bring the spirit of that joy back into your life today? Answering this question, and giving yourself permission to try something that feels a little silly can be a key toward finding more joy.

On your website, you touch on cultural feelings around beauty and pleasure. You write, “Pleasure must either be purposeful (justified by science as a route to health or creativity, for example) or guilty. There is no enjoyment that is acceptable simply for the feeling it gives us.” What do we lose out on when we believe that beauty and joy are superfluous, that they’re luxuries rather than necessities?

Joy might seem purposeless, but it evolved for a reason: to help guide our ancestors toward the things and places that would help them thrive. Joy isn't just a nice-to-have. It's directly connected to our fundamental instinct for survival. When we relinquish our ability to feel joy, we're relinquishing an essential part of our humanity.

If we take the joy out of learning, it becomes a chore. If we take the joy out of companionship, it becomes obligation. Any area of life where we lose joy is impoverished by that loss. And while this has painful implications for individuals, as a society, the consequences can be devastating. If we see joy as a luxury, then it's easy to believe that it's something you can earn or deserve. That can lead to policies that deprive the poor of joy simply because they haven't "earned" it. When housing projects are designed to be spartan and bare, even when more joyful buildings would cost no more, or when public assistance is restricted from being used for any small pleasures, it dehumanizes the poor and creates yet another barrier to their flourishing.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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