Rain­bow of joy

Mar­jorie Bren­nan talks to US au­thor In­grid Fetell Lee about sim­ple ways to brighten our lives, from paint­ing our homes in up­lift­ing colours to har­ness­ing the power of na­ture

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Feature -

“In the West we have a cul­tural bias against bright colours

WHEN In­grid Fetell Lee left a promis­ing ca­reer in brand­ing to study in­dus­trial de­sign at the pres­ti­gious Pratt In­sti­tute in New York, she won­dered if she had made a mis­take. When she pre­sented some of her work to a panel of pro­fes­sors, how­ever, she had an epiphany.

“One of them said my work gave him a feel­ing of joy. The other pro­fes­sors started nod­ding and I thought, well, that’s in­ter­est­ing.”

The pro­fes­sors couldn’t give an ex­act ex­pla­na­tion of how the sim­ple ob­jects she had de­signed, a cup, a lamp, a stool could elicit joy, so Fetell Lee de­cided to dis­cover why for her­self.

“Af­ter­wards, I went to the li­brary be­cause I thought, well, there must be a book on this — how things cre­ate joy. I went to the de­sign sec­tion, the psy­chol­ogy sec­tion, the neu­ro­science sec­tion and there was noth­ing. My pro­fes­sors couldn’t an­swer the ques­tion and it didn’t seem like any­one else had an­swered the ques­tion ei­ther.”

The re­sult of Fetell Lee’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions is her book Joy­ful: The Sur­pris­ing Power of Or­di­nary Things to Cre­ate Ex­tra­or­di­nary Hap­pi­ness, the cul­mi­na­tion of 10 years of re­search and travel to lo­ca­tions around the world, from Ja­panese cherry or­chards to an Ice­landic elf school.

“For so many years, psy­chol­ogy has fo­cused on what is hap­pen­ing in­side of us. So, when you go to a ther­a­pist, it’s al­ways about what is go­ing on in­side your own mind. Of course, that is im­por­tant but the field has largely ig­nored all the in­ter­ac­tions we have with our en­vi­ron­ment,” she says.

A former de­sign di­rec­tor at global in­no­va­tion firm IDEO, Fetell Lee has led de­sign pro­grammes for Condé Nast, Amer­i­can Ex­press and the US gov­ern­ment among many oth­ers. She is a founder of the blog Aes­thet­ics of Joy, which is a lead­ing re­source in the field of emo­tional de­sign, an ex­pert con­trib­u­tor to The New

York Times, and her TED talk on ‘Where Joy Hides and How to Find It’ has been viewed over 500,000 times.

In Joy­ful, she ex­plores how we can cre­ate joy­ful ex­pe­ri­ences and en­vi­ron­ments, and how mun­dane spa­ces and ob­jects we in­ter­act with can have a pow­er­ful ef­fect on our mood.

One of the most ob­vi­ous things that can bring us joy is colour, with Fetell Lee de­scrib­ing colour as ‘en­ergy made vis­i­ble’.

“From the mo­ment I first started study­ing joy, it was clear the liveli­est places and ob­jects have one thing in com­mon: bright, vivid colours,” she says.

She cites the ex­am­ple of Ti­rana, the cap­i­tal of Al­ba­nia, which was trans­formed when the city’s mayor, an artist by train­ing, be­gan a pro­gramme of paint­ing build­ings in vi­brant colours and pat­terns. While the ini­tia­tive was ini­tially given a mixed re­cep­tion, Fetell Lee writes about how soon af­ter, peo­ple stopped lit­ter­ing, they be­gan to gather in the city’s cafes again, the tax take in­creased, and cit­i­zens said they felt safer on the streets.

So, if colour can trans­form a city, why don’t we have more of it in our lives?

“There are many rea­sons but one is that in the West, we have a cul­tural bias that of­ten equates colour and or­na­men­ta­tion with a lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion,” says Fetell Lee.

“When you go to places such as South Amer­ica or In­dia, there isn’t the same kind of re­straint that we see in the West. Mod­ernism re­ally deep­ened that — the strip­ping away of or­na­men­ta­tion and em­bel­lish­ment.

“You have Adolf Loos [ar­chi­tec­tural the­o­rist] who put for­ward the doc­trine that it was crim­i­nal to be deca­dent and or­nate. Then you saw the be­gin­ning of ar­chi­tec­ture where it was just grey boxes. That was a time in which many cities were de­vel­oped and built and that is our legacy, that we have these rather bland en­vi­ron­ments.”

She men­tions places such as the Gu­atemalan town of Chichi­cas­te­nango, where fam­ily mem­bers paint graves with their loved one’s favourite colours. “The re­sult is a rain­bow ceme­tery that feels like a vi­brant city and a place to cel­e­brate life, rather than a mon­u­ment to death,” says Fetell Lee.

Closer to home, who can help but smile when see­ing the rows of brightly-painted dwellings in the west Cork vil­lage of Ey­eries and the vi­brantly-hued ‘Deck of Cards’ ter­race of houses in the town of Cobh? The city of Water­ford has also had a hugely pos­i­tive re­ac­tion to its an­nual Water­ford Walls ini­tia­tive, in which ne­glected build­ings have been used as a can­vas for the eye­catch­ing work of skilled street artists.

Of course, our phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment is not the only con­text in which things can ap­pear gloomy — the global po­lit­i­cal land­scape can also be a dark place. It is in such dif­fi­cult times that try­ing to cre­ate joy­ful mo­ments be­comes even more im­per­a­tive, says Fetell Lee.

“Joy is time­less, but the fact that there is much dis­cord and tur­moil now, and that we are sub­jected to it on a con­stant ba­sis be­cause of so­cial me­dia means our emo­tional sys­tems are be­ing pum­melled with stim­uli that bring us down or ag­i­tate us or make us an­gry.

“To have some­thing, a re­minder that joy is all around and you have ac­cess to it, is a use­ful bal­last.”

Ac­cord­ing to Fetell Lee, as our so­cial lives have mi­grated on­line, we find fewer mo­ments and spa­ces in which to ex­pe­ri­ence joy.

“How we wean our­selves off that and get back to the phys­i­cal world has been on my mind a lot. We have fallen into a rather dull pat­tern of ways to gather. I think of things like Day­breaker in the US, which are morn­ing dance par­ties be­fore work, where there is no al­co­hol. Peo­ple who go [to these events] say they are more pro­duc­tive dur­ing the work day and feel more plugged in and con­nected to the world. That is a great ex­am­ple of a rou­tine cel­e­bra­tion, cel­e­brat­ing no- thing more than an­other day you woke up on this planet and you are happy to be here.”

Fetell Lee ac­knowl­edges that mod­ern life, with all its at­ten­dant anx­i­eties and wor­ries, isn’t ex­actly con­ducive to the prop­a­ga­tion of joy.

“I think there are cer­tain things that get in the way as we go through our lives. As we fo­cus on our work, on be­ing suc­cess­ful, we can lose touch with the things that bring us joy. If that is the case all you re­ally need to do is pay at­ten­tion to when you feel joy and find ways to cul­ti­vate that. It is like any other mus­cle or any in­stinct that you haven’t had touch with in a while, you just need to give it at­ten­tion. Some­times we have to re­con­nect with our im­pulse for joy be­cause we have had so many mes­sages telling us that we don’t de­serve it, that we haven’t earned it or that it is self-in­dul­gent or friv­o­lous.”

Not sur­pris­ingly, na­ture is an­other sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ment in Fetell Lee’s joy­ful­ness ma­trix. Her book cites nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of how we can har­ness na­ture to bring more joy into our lives, and it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­volve vast green spa­ces.

For ex­am­ple, just adding a few plants to a win­dow­less room has been shown to de­crease re­search sub­jects’ blood pres­sure, im­prove their at­ten- tion and pro­duc­tiv­ity, and prompt more gen­er­ous be­hav­iour to­wards oth­ers. When I ask Fetell Lee what brings her joy, she men­tions a gar­den at her sec­ond home by the sea in the east end of Long Is­land.

“Go­ing out to the gar­den and cut­ting the flow­ers and ar­rang­ing them for the ta­ble is one of my great­est joys. It is a very sim­ple thing. An­other sim­ple thing is that we got a bird-feeder; I to­tally un­der-es­ti­mated how that would make me feel. It has at­tracted so many birds to our yard, now I wake ev­ery morn­ing and I hear bird­song and it is pro­found be­cause be­fore there were only a few birds there be­fore. They have come and made nests in our trees. They have made the whole place feel so much more alive. One small ac­tion has had re­ally pow­er­ful ef­fects.” Joy­ful: The Sur­pris­ing Power of Or­di­nary Things to Cre­ate Ex­tra­or­di­nary Hap­pi­ness (Rider) by In­grid Fetell Lee is out now. As­thet­ic­sofjoy.com

QUICK LIFT: In­grid Fetell Lee ex­plores the psy­cho­log­i­cal power of colour to im­prove our men­tal state in her new book, Joy­ful. Some­thing as sim­ple as a goldfinch, in­set, on a bird ta­ble can lift your day.

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