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Bubbles, colour, shape and texture – the surprising roots of human joy

Designer Ingrid Fetell Lee set out to discover what really makes humans feel happy. She came to the conclusion that we are surprisingly easy to satisfy

I didn’t set out to study joy for a living. But about 10 years ago, an offhand comment changed the course of my life.

It was the last day of my first year of design school. I stood in front of a panel of professors, displaying my designed objects; teacups, a lamp, a trio of stools. The professors were long silent as they looked over the collection. Then one man said, “Your work gives me a feeling of joy.”

Joy? I felt a flash of irritation. I was studying to be a designer because I wanted to make things that solved serious problems. The stools I had designed were intended to help people with balance problems strengthen the stabilising muscles of the legs and core. The lamp had bendable arms with LED lights to help craftspeople better illuminate their work and prevent eyestrain. I cared about how things worked, not how they made people feel. Joy seemed fluffy and frivolous – and completely beside the point.

But at the same time, I felt a spark of curiosity. Joy was a feeling, intangible and elusive – what did that have to do with the things on the table next to me? I had always believed joy came from within us, not around us. How, then, could tangible things elicit this feeling of intangible joy?

I found I couldn’t stop thinking about this question. Wherever I went – in cafés and on buses, in parks and at parties – I asked people about the things and places that brought them joy.  Certain things kept coming up again and again. They were things like hot air balloons and bubbles, treehouses and beaches, flowers and rainbows. These things cut across lines of age, gender and ethnicity. They weren’t joyful for just a few people. They were joyful for nearly everyone.

What made these things so universally joyful, I wondered. I started pinning pictures of them up on my studio wall, and one day as I looked at them, something clicked. I saw lollipops, pom-poms and polka dots, and it dawned on me: they were all round. Vibrant quilts kept company with Matisse paintings and rainbow candies: all bursting with saturated colour. And I saw other patterns too: symmetrical shapes, a sense of abundance and multiplicity, natural textures, a feeling of lightness or elevation.

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Ingrid Fetell Lee is former design director at IDEO New York. Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness is out now (Rider, £20)

Seeing it this way, I realised that joy did have roots in the material world. Yes, the feeling could be mysterious and ephemeral, but we could access it through tangible, physical attributes, or what designers call aesthetics. And as I went about my daily life, I noticed that seeing these aesthetics of joy could reliably improve my mood. I began to go out of my way to walk by a colourful mural, to scan the block for the vintage green Mini Cooper that was often parked on the street, and to make time to stop and stare up at the sunlit clouds on my way home from work in the evening.

And then I noticed something else. If bright colour, abundance and round shapes brought joy, then why were these sensations almost completely absent from the places we spend most of our time? Why were offices filled with beige cubicles? Why were cities so grey and angular? The worst-looking places, the starkest and most forbidding, were places like nursing homes, hospitals, housing projects, prisons – the places that housed the most vulnerable members of our society.

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It was at this point that I began to discover that the joy we find in our surroundings isn’t nearly as trivial as I had originally believed. For example, researchers have found that people working in colourful offices are not only more joyful, but also more confident and alert than people working in drab spaces. Other studies show that a gift of flowers improves both mood and memory among the elderly, that hospital patients with green views go home sooner after surgery, and that having more trees and shrubs nearby is related to a reduction in crime in public housing by as much as 50 per cent.

Alongside the research, I found people like Ruth Lande Shuman, founder of Publicolor, a non-profit that works to transform neglected New York City public schools with vibrant colour. Publicolor has heard from principals who say that attendance improves and that kids even say they feel safer in the painted buildings. And I met Emmanuelle Moureaux, an architect whose multi-coloured design for a nursing home in Tokyo has resulted in visitors staying longer with their older relatives. Initiatives like these cost little, yet can have a powerful, unconscious influence on our wellbeing.

What I’ve learned over the past 10 years is that joy is deceptively simple. Though each moment seems small, it can have much bigger ripple effects. As a designer – and a citizen – I’m excited about the potential for small changes to bring about a healthier, more equitable and truly joyful world.

Image: The Music by Henri Matisse