Conventional wisdom tells us that real joy comes from within: from exercise or meditation, acts of service or the way we look at the world—pretty much anything except material possessions. But designer Ingrid Fetell Lee offers a different take in her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.
During the last season of the Next Big Idea podcast, Ingrid sat down with Next Big Idea Club curator Adam Grant to discuss the powerful relationship between the way we feel and the objects that surround us. Listen to the full episode below, or read a few key highlights.
Can ordinary objects make us extraordinarily joyful?
Ingrid Fetell Lee: I was studying industrial design at Pratt, and I had this review where a professor looked at my work and said it felt joyful to him—it made him feel joy. And this was really weird to me, because I had always thought of joy as this ephemeral thing. And so when my professor said this, it began a process of inquiry for me: How do objects make us feel joy? I set out to try to answer this question for myself, to discover the aesthetics of joy.
Adam Grant: It’s pretty weird for a professor to say that any work anyone does gives them joy. So what was it about your work? Was your professor able to identify the source of his joy, or is that part of the puzzle for you?
Ingrid: No, that was part of the problem. Design is a very intuitive discipline, but I really wanted to understand where this sense of joy came from. My dad is a neurologist, and I grew up with two doctors as parents, so science was always a part of my upbringing.
Adam: I’m very sorry.
Ingrid: There was a lot of jargon at the dinner table. But as a result, I really wanted to understand the “why,” and in design school there’s not a lot of “why.” It’s really about the “what” and how it makes people feel. There isn’t a bridge between the people who are studying objects and how they make us feel and the people studying what’s happening in our minds when we encounter things. So for me, it was this question of, “How do I bridge that gap? How do I bring what scientists are discovering into the practice of design?”
“Cute things prompt a nurturing impulse, and nurturing is a focused act. So when we look at cute animals, that might actually make us better at concentrating.”
Want to improve your concentration? Try looking at cute things.
Ingrid: This study out of Japan shows that looking at cute things increases focus and concentration. It makes sense because cute things prompt a nurturing impulse, and nurturing is a focused act. So when we look at cute animals, that might actually make us better at concentrating.
Adam: That also reminds me of research showing that if you see pictures of puppies and kittens, you then make fewer errors on tasks. The cuteness leads to behavioral carefulness, which is probably related to the same nurturing idea.
Ingrid: Yes, exactly.
Adam: Is this why I keep getting student requests for a petting zoo on campus?
Ingrid: That I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea. We had a day at IDEO when we had puppies come to the office.
Adam: “These are new designers! We value species diversity.”
“I don’t think we feel true joy if we don’t feel true sorrow as well.”
Want to get more joy out of life? Try joyspotting.
Ingrid: A woman contacted me after one of my talks, and she told me that she hadn’t wanted to come. Her way of seeing the world was that they are joyful people and there are not joyful people, and unfortunately, she believed that she was not one of them.
But in my talk, I talked about joyspotting. It’s like a mindfulness exercise, but it’s specifically focused on spotting joy in your surroundings—seeing things and noticing things that bring you a feeling of joy. When I talked about that, she said, “Well, it’s free, it’s easy, and no one has to know I’m doing it.” And so she said, “OK, I’ll try it.” Then she did it, and she told me, “Actually, I did see it. I did see joy. And then I started seeing more of it.”
We shouldn’t be happy all the time.
Ingrid: The idea that we want people to be happy all the time is something I’m trying to fight against, because I believe that joy is not a state of being. It is an emotion, and the whole idea of my work is just that we feel joy a little more often. But we should feel all our other emotions, too—we should feel the lows, for example. We should acknowledge the lows because I don’t think we feel true joy if we don’t feel true sorrow as well. And so, for me, the idea is to explore and expand the full range of our emotions.
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