Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee discusses the big ideas behind her latest book, the Next Big Idea Club Finalist, ‘Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.’
Ingrid Fetell Lee has been featured as an expert on design and joy by outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, Fast Company, and more. She is a former design director at global innovation firm IDEO, and her 2018 TED talk received a standing ovation.
Ingrid’s latest book, Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, was recently selected as a Finalist for the Next Big Idea Club. So we asked her to dive into the biggest ideas behind the book, what surprised her during her research process, and how we can all discover more joy in the world around us.
1. In two sentences or less, can you sum up the “big idea” of your book?
Joy is all around us. Though we’ve been conditioned to believe that joy is largely an internal pursuit, a body of research is emerging to show that our physical surroundings have a profound, universal influence on our emotions and well-being.
2. What surprised you the most in your research?
Mayor Edi Rama’s transformation of Tirana, Albania stunned me. When Rama was elected, he faced a city devastated by a decade of neglect, yet with an empty treasury, there wasn’t much he could do about it. So Rama turned to color. He painted vibrant designs on the downtown buildings (even privately owned ones) in colors like tangerine orange, turquoise, red, and violet. Soon after, people stopped littering. Shopkeepers removed the metal grates from their windows, saying the streets felt safer. There were no more police than before, but crime actually began to fall. And people began to pay their municipal taxes again. In five years after the first paintings, the number of businesses in Tirana tripled, and tax revenue increased sixfold. We often dismiss color as “just decoration,” and it’s the last thing to be considered in architecture and urban planning, if it’s even considered at all. But what happened in Tirana reveals that even though color seems like a surface treatment, it has effects that go much deeper.
Similarly, I’ve been struck by the gap between the research that shows how our environment affects our well-being, and the awareness of these findings. For example, the research on light: A meta-analysis of studies on light therapy shows that it can be effective not just for seasonal depression, but for non-seasonal depression as well — as effective in some cases as anti-depressants! Research in long-term care homes shows that just changing to brighter light bulbs has the potential to reduce both depression and cognitive decline among Alzheimer’s patients. And in offices, workers with access to more natural light sleep better, are more physically active, and laugh more than those in dimmer spaces. I was shocked to discover that there are simple, low-cost changes that could make a real difference in our mental health, yet these interventions are rarely incorporated into the design of buildings or clinical practice.
“I was shocked to discover that there are simple, low-cost changes that could make a real difference in our mental health.”
3. Did an event from your personal life inspire or affect the book?
When I was in design school, a professor made an offhand comment that my work brought him a feeling of joy. I had always thought of joy as intangible and elusive, and was surprised by the idea that joy could come from ordinary household objects. I asked my professors to explain: How do tangible things elicit intangible joy? They couldn’t answer the question, and I found this incredibly frustrating. So I set out to answer it myself.
This quest ended up taking me on a ten-year journey, and because the topic is so closely connected to everyday life, there have been many moments where my life has influenced my research. In particular, my travel experiences have made an indelible impression on this work. Having traveled to forty-eight different countries, it’s given me a chance to check my own biases about the expression of joy in different places, and to see firsthand how underneath the differences of culture and language there are many deep commonalities in what sparks joy around the world.
4. What would you like readers to take away from your book?
Joy is far more accessible than you might think. We live in a culture that is preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness, yet this happiness often feels big and vague and slightly out of reach. Joy is much smaller and simpler — it can be found in moments, like stopping to watch the glow of the sunset or playing peekaboo with a baby or catching sight of a vibrant piece of street art. And though these small moments of joy might seem inconsequential, in fact they have powerful effects on our health and productivity, relationships and resilience. Research shows that joy counteracts the physical effects of stress, improves our problem-solving ability, makes us more productive (by up to 12%, according to one study), and even makes us more attractive to other people. Over time, these little moments of joy become the building blocks of a happier life.
By refocusing our attention on small moments of joy, and recognizing the role our surroundings play in these moments, we can find many more of them in daily life. And not only can we find more joy, we can also create it, for ourselves and for others. If tangible things like color, greenery, symmetry, and light bring joy, then we don’t have to wait for joy to happen. We can make simple changes to harness the power of our surroundings to cultivate joy and bring out our most creative, productive, and generous selves.
“Little moments of joy become the building blocks of a happier life.”
5. Do you have a favorite quote or motto that guides your life?
One that I come back to again and again is this: “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I have just lived the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” – Diane Ackerman
At root, finding joy is simply about having a rich engagement with the world around us, rather than watching it all slip by in a blur. This is what, for me, leads to the feeling of living “the width” of life.
6. What is one book that you wish everyone in the world would read?
The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley, a wonderful meditation on the joys of the natural world. I don’t think you can help but come away from it [having gained] a sense of reverence for the life on this planet, and a desire to do more to protect it.
7. What was your most humbling moment?
Arriving at design school in 2007 without any background in design whatsoever. I had done my undergraduate degree at Princeton, and I assumed that graduate school would be similar: challenging, but manageable. But when I got to Pratt, I found myself completely out of my depth. I was surrounded by people with art degrees, and I couldn’t even do the basics. I had no idea how to draw or mix colors or create prototypes. My models were misshapen and lumpy — I still cringe when I look at pictures of them! For the first time in a long time, I was bad at everything I set out to do. But being bad at everything, while humbling, was also liberating. I didn’t know anything, so I could question everything.
8. What trivial trick, talent, or feat can you do to impress people?
I don’t know how impressed people are by this, but I am weirdly skilled at Jenga.
9. What’s something that is really easy for most people that you find really challenging?
Replying to emails. I’m amazed when people are able to dash off responses that feel considered in just a few minutes! I feel like it takes me a long time to choose the right words, even for basic emails. Sometimes I think I write emails at about the pace that people used to write letters years ago. If only the rest of the world would slow down to match!