Joyspotting with Ingrid Fetell Lee


Stop right there. Joy could be right in front of you! According to Ingrid Fetell Lee, the things that are physically around us have not been given enough credit when it comes to joy-bringing. In her book, Joyful, the author and designer challenges the idea that true joy can only come from within. Drawing on her own experiences as well as insights from neuroscience and psychology research, she presents 10 aesthetics that have the potential to bring moments of profound joy. In advance of her live discussion with our CEO Susan Tynan in DC on July 30, we spoke with Ingrid about her book and approach to a more joyful life.

There are so many philosophies that assert joy comes from within—words like mindfulness and meditation are liberally used. What made you think there could be more to the idea that real joy can come from your environment? 

I was of that impression, too. I was raised to believe that physical things are not that important—we’re not supposed to care too much about them and that what really matters comes from the inside. It’s not that I think those ideas aren’t valid and valuable. It’s really important to do the work of getting to know yourself and understand what’s going on inside. 

But when I was in grad school for industrial design and during a review my professor said that my work gave him a feeling of joy, it was like a light bulb flashed for me. As a designer, I’d always been attracted to certain kinds of things—colorful things, vibrant things—and I’d always thought that was sort of shallow and superficial. This was the moment when I realized maybe that stuff is more important than I thought. The professors couldn’t tell me why that would be the case, so I started researching it. I found out that our surroundings do influence our emotions, sometimes to such a profound degree that they can influence serious conditions like depression and anxiety. It made me think that psychology had really been overlooking these ideas. 

Ingrid Fetell Lee

Create joy, bring joy, produce joy, give do you prefer to talk about joy, in the active or passive tense? Are we capable of creating joy or does it just happen if we set ourselves up for it?

It’s interesting. Can you literally manufacture joy? I don’t know, but I think it might just be semantics. I love the idea of creating the conditions for joy to happen. That’s still an active thing. The idea that we don’t just have to wait for joy to happen, but that we can create the conditions for it—that’s the important distinction. 

When I was younger I felt that joy came and went and you had no control over it. Understanding that you can do specific things to create the conditions for it, to make it more likely to appear or occur gives people a sense of agency. While we can’t manufacture happiness, because that’s too big, we can create one more moment—a few more moments—of joy in a day. That’s a very doable thing.  

Is there an equation? If you have more moments of joy does it equal bigger happiness?

Generally we know that more moments of joy lead to outcomes that tend to build toward happiness. For example, there’s research that shows we’re more physically attractive to other people when we’re in a state of joy. There’s something magnetic about it. It draws other people to us. Joy is contagious, it rubs off on other people, which makes other people want to be around us. And then there are studies that show that it can influence our work performance so salespeople that exhibit joy are more likely to do better business. When customers give higher satisfaction ratings, they’re more likely to spend time browsing and return for a repeat visit. Studies show that people are 12% more productive in a state of joy. So if you were 12% more productive every day, you’d have more time for friends and family. There are all these other effects. It’s hard to quantify exactly what that looks like, but I think we can say that more moments of joy do kick off a spiral of events that leads us toward happiness.

In Joyful, you present 10 aesthetics that can produce joy. How did you settle on these ones? What was your process?

It all started when I spoke to people about the things and the places that brought them joy. I started to notice that certain things would come up again and again. I would find images of those things (pre-Instagram, pre-Pinterest), put them up on my wall, and look for patterns. Eventually I noticed there were certain physical attributes that seemed to go together. When I would discover one of those, I would call it out and try to figure out why we found joy in it. For instance, noticing that we found joy in bright colors. I began to look at why that was the case. Evolutionary theorists think we may be attracted to bright color because our color vision evolved in part to find ripe fruits and young leaves that were nutritious. 

I realized there was a correlation to energy and began thinking about that as the “energy aesthetic”, even if it’s light or color. They seem different on the surface, but they’re both manifestations of energy in our environment. So it became a process of spotting the pattern and then tracing it back to an evolutionary perspective to understand why it would be joyful.

Is it ok that some of these experiences seem...obvious? Do you think that there is a process that people need to go through to accept the fact that rainbows and butterflies bring joy?

It’s funny to me, some people say, “It’s so obvious and yet I never thought about it.” We take these things that bring joy for granted. If everyone feels a certain way, isn’t it good to know why that’s the case? 

There are two ways to feel about it. One is that people feel ashamed if they find certain things joyful. They think it’s childish and they’re not supposed to find these things; they’re supposed to have grown into more adult tastes. Then there are the people who don’t let themselves feel joy in those things. They think “I’m above that, I’m beyond that.” Helping people understand that this is a universal human impulse can validate and create permission. 

You might even say cool is the enemy of joy. They are opposite ends of the spectrum. Joy is leaning forward, enthusiastic. It’s earnest, which is a thing so maligned in our culture. You’re not supposed to be too earnest. You’re supposed to be sarcastic, dry and detached, judgmental—coolness is all those things. It’s leaned back, it’s judgmental, it’s distance. It’s cool, not warm. Joy is warm. I think that the closer we get to our emotions, the closer we get to joy, the better we understand that some of these things that may not be very cool are very joyful. If you’re feeling joy, it doesn’t really matter how cool you look to other people. It’s liberating. 

There has been a lot of talk recently about paring down belongings, the minimal aesthetic. You identify abundance, as well as harmony and order, as aesthetics that produce joy. Can you speak about the difference and similarity in approach? What would Marie Kondo say to Dorothy Draper?

The key thing for me is to separate material minimalism from aesthetic minimalism. Material minimalism is Marie Kondo’s directive to get rid of the stuff you don’t need. I don’t know that anyone would disagree with that. Dorothy Draper wasn’t in favor of clutter either. In Joyful, I talk about paring down your possessions like weeding a garden. Get rid of the stuff you don’t love so that you can see (and enjoy!) the stuff that you do. 

Aesthetic minimalism is a different kettle of fish. It involves people driven by modernism and ideas of good taste, saying we should have bare concrete walls and fields of glass. Generally it means hard materials that cast a lot of glare, make a lot of reverberations of sound, and don’t incorporate any curves of nature. That kind of minimalism I take issue with because it’s anxiety-provoking. People seek it out because they think it’s calming, but actually our minds are not meant to function in bare white or beige boxes. They evolved to function in nature, which is noisy with birds and animals. It’s always moving. It’s textured with fractals. We know, for example, that fractals influence our brain waves in a very alert but calming fashion. When we create bare environments that adhere to aesthetic minimalism, we are setting ourselves up to be out of alignment with what makes our brains function best and our emotions feel the best. 

We talk a lot about memories here, not so much in terms of preserving them (although we do that) but by surrounding yourself with them, it brings joy in the present. How do you think memory interacts with the aesthetics in Joyful?

The things I talk about in Joyful are universal. Memory is personal and individual. I think what’s really powerful about joy is that we can experience it on different time scales. Our brains are time travelers. So we can experience joy in the past, relive it, and bring it back up to the surface. We can experience joy in the future and anticipate it. All of these—past, present and future—are powerful ways to experience joy. Surrounding yourself with memories is without question a powerful way to use your space to bring joy up to the surface. Memory as a device is powerful, which is why I’m such a fan of souvenirs. They can bring experiences back to you.

At the end of Joyful, you give readers a toolkit for bringing the aesthetics of joy to their own worlds. What are the principles you used to develop this kit? How can readers begin to utilize these methods in their own settings? How do you suggest recognizing the moments that give joy?

I have a practice I call joyspotting. It’s just a practice of paying attention to the little joyful things in your surroundings. It could be as simple as taking ten seconds right now wherever you are, looking around you and asking “what do I see, hear, or feel that gives me a little lift right now?” 

For instance, right now I see sunflowers that are planted in my garden—that’s a great example of creating the conditions for joy. I planted those, it took months for them to grow and now they’re here. I created conditions for my future joy. Noticing the feeling inside is really powerful. If I were to ask you how anxiety feels in your body right now, you could tell me, but we forget what joy feels like. Joy has a physical feeling too. When people start to tune into it, they notice it feels light, it feels radiating. It might be a little different for every person; we all have slightly different manifestations. Seeing what is around us and how it feels in your body is really powerful. 

As for the toolkit, it’s really liberating to get back in touch with our own internal emotional sense of what feels good, rather than what is deemed “good design”. Start to notice what attributes make you want to stay in a space. Notice those patterns so that you can utilize them. A lot of the toolkit is about is noticing particular aesthetics that bring you joy then using practical strategies to translate them into your own space.