We constantly receive advice on how we could be happier—cleanses, retreats, mindfulness—but according to industrial designer and author Ingrid Fetell Lee, the secret ingredients of joy may be found in our surroundings.
Lee has built a career studying the science of joy, and how everyday surroundings can engage us in ways that influence our emotional well-being. That’s the subject of her bestselling book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness.
Her journey started with simple curiosity while studying for her Master’s in Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute. “I really didn’t set out to study joy at all,” she says. “I had always thought of it as an intangible feeling—the idea that tangible objects could lift our emotions was confusing me. I started to ask professors to explain how things could bring a feeling of joy, and they couldn’t answer. That began the journey: if joy could be designed, then how?”
Lee has gone on to answer that question through her practice, and in the past decade, her knowledge has been sought out by brands from Condé Nast to Kate Spade. How can Lee help homeowners intentionally imbue a sense of joy into their spaces? Here are a few of her discoveries.
Define Happiness for Yourself
“I start by asking people, ‘How do you want your space to feel? How do you want to feel when you walk in the door? What kind of life do you want to live in this space?’” says Lee. Joy, after all, is a subjective state: it’s a little different for everyone.
Lee has identified ten “aesthetics of joy” that can infuse any designed environment with positivity, albeit in different ways. Take energy, for example, the energy aesthetic harnesses bold, bright colours to enliven your space with warmth and excitement. The abundance aesthetic, in contrast, brings together prints and patterns, blankets and pillows, to create a space that embraces you with plenty. Both are sensorial experiences that express joy through design, but they don’t work the same way.
Tune Into Your Inner Child
Have you ever found yourself completely spellbound by the simple act of blowing bubbles on a sunny day, or been entranced by the decadent circular cakes in your local bakery? Your response to these things is subconscious—and it’s largely driven by geometry.
“It turns out that the amygdala—a part of your brain associated with fear—activates when you look at angular shapes,” explains Lee. “When we have a space with more curves, it feels more joyful and it puts our unconscious minds at ease.” The round objects we fixate on as children—from cookies and balloons to hula hoops and carousels—naturally resonate with us on an unconscious level.
It’s a similar story with symmetry. “There’s a study out of the University of Chicago, where they had half the subjects take a math test while exposed to pictures of very odd, asymmetrical spaces. The other half looked at symmetrical spaces that were neat orderly.” When given the opportunity to grade their own work, the first group were more likely to cheat when marking their tests.
Even though everyone from small children to adults can sense that curved shapes and balanced environments are emotionally satisfying, we live in an overwhelmingly rectilinear world. So what can we do about it when designing our living spaces?
“Furnishings are one way to do it,” says Lee. “If you can get a round coffee table, that changes the way a living room feels. Lighting fixtures are a great solution because there are so many beautiful round bulbs and shades. And you can solve angles through renovations if you have the budget: a curved wall or arches are another way to create roundness. Adding a porthole or circular window is a very playful way to embrace shape as well.”
Rethink Conventional Color
As with the study of shapes, watching how children use colour can help us better understand the unconscious, elemental experiences that make us happy. Lee encourages people to think beyond the basic associations of chromotherapy—red as passionate, blue as calm—and pay attention to the nuances of saturation and light.
“It’s less about which hue you choose, and more about how bright and vibrant the colours are,” she says. “You can have a really invigorating space where all the colour comes from a natural element, such as plants, so there’s no neon but it still feels joyful. It’s more about having a palette to work with.”
Designing for joy, it turns out, is quite a subconscious process; people simply need to follow their instincts and intuitions. For instance, Lee points to the popularity of hyper-minimalist spaces, whose success is mostly a cultural phenomenon, not a natural one.
“If you imagine our ancestors trying to choose where to settle, if they saw a lush forest to the left and desert to the right, it’s obvious which way they’re going to turn—they’re going to choose the lush forest. Some people do want a minimalist environment, but in general, research suggests we’re more productive when our spaces are not totally bare and have at least some plants and art.”
You Only Need to Impress You
Many luxury homes have all the building blocks for joy—spacious layouts, high ceilings, great lighting, outdoor areas, gorgeous views—and yet their interiors, however magazine-worthy, are stark and grey.
“When you look at the luxury market, the focus is on sophistication, not on joy,” notes Lee. “I think the reason for this is that we tend to associate joy with childhood—bright colours, sumptuous curves, abundant textures—we see those things as joyful, and we forget that they can also be sophisticated.”
Homeowners frequently ask Lee how they can incorporate joyful aesthetics on a budget—so it’s exciting to think about what can be done in luxury homes to support the psychological and physiological well-being of residents and guests. Lee encourages homeowners to take a step back and rethink the entire design process.
“Designers like to start with style: they ask questions about modern or traditional, minimalist or maximalist—and while those questions can help, I think it’s starting in the wrong place,” she says. “They’re trying to find an externally defined idea of what is good. I want to help people see what feels good to them.”
This article was published on March 9, 2022. This article was originally published on Sotheby’s International Realty’s Extraordinary Living Blog and has been adapted for Sotheby’s International Realty Canada’s Insight Blog.