Why do blowing bubbles, riding Ferris wheels, and twirling Hula-Hoops make us smile? Why do animals — from dogs to dolphins — always seem to try to play with a ball?
While studying for a graduate degree at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn-based designer Ingrid Fetell Lee began searching for answers to why certain places and objects elicit positive emotions.
A former design director at IDEO, Fetell Lee discovered that our attraction to circles, for example, is backed by research showing that humans implicitly associate curved forms with safety and positivity and angular shapes with danger and negativity. One study found that the brain’s amygdala (which plays a role in the human fight-or-flight response) was more active when a person viewed an angular object, like a square dish, than when the person looked at a circular version of the same object.
Research by psychologists and neuroscientists; interviews with celebrated artists, gardeners, and architects; and visits to enchanting vistas in Iceland and a treehouse bed and breakfast helped Fetell Lee identify 10 aesthetics of joy: energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration, and renewal.
We can use these to design our homes, work spaces, and communities in ways that create — and allow us to experience — joyful moments.
“Round objects offer unique potential for discovery and delight,” she writes in Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. “Pompoms sewn along the edges of curtains or pillows make them irresistibly playful and tactile.”
Curved coffee tables, for instance, spark lively conversations and impromptu games; soft or rounded edges encourage movement and flow.
Experience Life | How do you define joy and why did you choose to focus on creating joy over pursuing happiness?
Ingrid Fetell Lee | According to psychological literature, joy is an intense momentary experience of positive emotion — one that’s recognizable through physical expressions like smiling and laughter and through physical feelings such as a sense of lightness in your body.
Psychologists often equate happiness with something called “subjective well-being” or how we feel about our lives over time. Unlike happiness, joy is momentary and transient, and because of that I think it’s more accessible immediately.
Related to design, I think we can much more easily understand how to create momentary experiences of something than we…