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
“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.