Ingrid Fetell Lee: How Can We Design More Joy Into Our Surroundings? Ingrid Fetell Lee discovered that certain elements--like bright color, abundance, round shapes--are universally joyful. She says designing more joyful spaces can actually change how we feel and act.

Ingrid Fetell Lee: How Can We Design More Joy Into Our Surroundings?

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So here's a question.


RAZ: (Laughter). OK. Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens.

LEE: Yes?


JULIE ANDREWS: (Singing) Bright copper kettles...

RAZ: Bright, copper kettles and warm, woolen mittens.

LEE: Yes.

RAZ: Brown paper packages tied up with strings.

LEE: (Laughter).

RAZ: These are joyful, right?

LEE: Yeah. It's true.


ANDREWS: (Singing) My favorite things.

LEE: You know, we all sort of understand the universality of those sort of simple joys, and we don't really think much as to why. But I think understanding why helps you start to look for more of those things.


RAZ: This is Ingrid Fetell Lee.

LEE: Should I say I'm a designer?

RAZ: Sure. You're a designer. That's good.

LEE: And I'm the author of "Joyful" and the founder of the Aesthetics of Joy.

RAZ: And Ingrid has kind of dedicated her life to understanding what makes some things joyful, which is a concept that came up by accident while she was in design school.

LEE: It was only in a moment when I had a review, and one of the professors said, your work gives me a feeling of joy. That was the first time that I really gave much thought to joy. And then I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I really was so intrigued by the idea that there might be joy hiding in the things around us.

RAZ: When we come back in just a moment, how Ingrid Fetell Lee's search for universally joyful things gave her the power to see little moments of joy everywhere. On the show today, Where Joy Hides. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about finding joy. And we're just hearing from designer Ingrid Fetell Lee, who first stumbled upon the concept of joy in design school. Ingrid picks up the story from the TED stage.


LEE: Where does joy come from? It's different than happiness, which measures how good we feel over time. Joy is about feeling good in the moment, right now. And this was interesting to me because as a culture we are obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, and yet in the process, we kind of overlook joy. I started asking everyone I knew, and even people I just met on the street, about the things that brought them joy. I felt like a detective - when did you last see it? Who were you with? What color was it? Did anyone else see it? I was the Nancy Drew of joy.


LEE: And after a few months of this, I noticed that there were certain things that started to come up again and again and again. They were things like cherry blossoms and bubbles, swimming pools and tree houses. Hot air balloons and googly eyes.


LEE: And ice cream cones, especially the ones with the sprinkles. These things seemed to cut across lines of age and gender and ethnicity. I mean, if you think about it, we all stop and turn our heads to the sky when the multicolored arc of a rainbow streaks across it. And fireworks - we don't even need to know what they're for, and we feel like we're celebrating, too. These things aren't joyful for just a few people. They're joyful for nearly everyone. They're universally joyful.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's amazing to me, and I love that there's something about the human brain that just, like, lights up when it sees those things. It doesn't matter where we're from or where we live. Like, it just - we're just sort of wired to light up when we encounter these things.

LEE: Yes. And that ran counter to everything that I had ever been taught, that, you know, the pleasure of a rainbow was just an idle pleasure. And so it was sort of incidental to our happiness and everything else. But if there were these things that created universal joy that are in all of us, and we all have this attraction to those things then there must be some reason.


LEE: What is it about these things that makes them so joyful? I had pictures of them up on my studio wall, and every day I would come in and try to make sense of it. And then one day, something just clicked. I saw all these patterns. Round things. Pops of bright color. Symmetrical shapes. A sense of abundance and multiplicity. A feeling of lightness or elevation. When I saw it this way, I realized that though the feeling of joy is mysterious and elusive, we can access it through tangible, physical attributes, or what designers call aesthetics, a word that comes from the same root as the Greek word, aisthanomai, which means I feel, I sense, I perceive.

And since these patterns were telling me that joy begins with the senses, I began calling them aesthetics of joy, the sensations of joy. And in the wake of this discovery, I noticed something - that as I walked around, I began spotting little moments of joy everywhere I went. A vintage yellow car, or a clever piece of street art. It was like I had a pair of rose-colored glasses. And now that I knew what to look for, I was seeing it everywhere. It was like these little moments of joy were hidden in plain sight.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, what is it about bright colors and patterns and abundance and, like, round things, right, that make them universally joyful? I mean, I guess there's no way we definitively could have the answer.

LEE: Well, you're right. We can't know exactly. But if you think about the fact that joy is part of our motivational system then it starts to make sense that many of these things are joyful because they tap into that innate emotional reward system that rewards us for pursuing the things that are good for our survival and thriving. So for example, round things. You know, one of the reasons that round things are so joyful is because round things are the safest shapes. Bubbles, balloons and balls, and hula hoops and carousels. And in childhood, we're reaching out to touch things, and those shapes are the safest shapes.

And when neuroscientists actually look at how our brains respond to curved shapes versus angular shapes, they find that angular shapes create activity in a part of the brain called the amygdala which is associated partially with fear and anxiety. And round shapes don't do that. And so, you know, there's something unconscious in us that avoids those sharp shapes and pulls us toward these joyful, round, curving shapes.

RAZ: Like, I think about confetti, right? Everybody loves confetti.

LEE: Totally. And if you have just one confetto, which is the singular of confetti, it's not very joyful. But when you multiply those, you get something that creates a lot of joy. And, you know, we evolved in a world where scarcity was dangerous to us, and abundance was one of the things that we could look for to increase our chances of survival. So when we see things that are lush, that are multitextured, that have this sense of multicolor or multiplicity, that gives us a feeling of joy.

RAZ: You know, so much of everybody's day-to-day life is defined by the design around them. Right? Like, they don't even know - they're not even conscious of the chairs they're sitting in or the color of the walls or the institutions in which they work - the hospitals, the schools. And so many of these places lack joy. They're joyless.

LEE: Yeah, I think so. I think - when I look at the world, I feel like we've designed joy out of it in a lot of ways. And some of that is because we sort of embrace the idea of practicality, that things should be practical and, therefore, they should look practical. But there are ways to bring that feeling of joy back into our spaces. And you make the point that people don't realize that these things are affecting them.

RAZ: Yeah. Do you know, the thing that's brought me the most joy out of anything I've bought in, like, years is this orange cargo bicycle that I have? And I use it for everything, and it's awesome.

LEE: It's making me smile, just hearing about it. So...

RAZ: It's a bright orange, and it's - you can't miss it because it's bright, bright orange.

LEE: Yeah. And I think, you know, in these landscapes that are so gray, I mean, you're literally carrying joy with you through the cityscape. And you know, I think a lot about the German artist Johannes Itten who said, you know, color is life because a world without it appears to us as dead. And I think, you know, so many of our cityscapes are sort of leached of color, and it makes them feel dead. It makes them feel like dead spaces. And when you take something like an orange bike and you travel through it, you're literally enlivening the space as you go.


LEE: If these are the things that bring us joy, then why does so much of the world look like this? Why do we go to work here? Why do we send our kids to schools that look like this? And this is most acute for the places that house the people that are most vulnerable among us - nursing homes, hospitals, homeless shelters, housing projects. We all start out joyful. But as we get older, being colorful or exuberant opens us up to judgment. And so we hold ourselves back from joy.

But if the aesthetics of joy can be used help us find more joy in the world around us, then couldn't they also be used to create more joy? I spent the last two years scouring the planet, looking for different ways that people have answered this question. And this led me to the work of the artist Arakawa and the poet Madeline Gins, who believed that these kinds of environments are literally killing us.


RAZ: OK. So you went on this search to see how other people have kind of injected joy into some of these lifeless places. And actually, it changes behavior. Like, this is actually measurable.

LEE: Yeah, it is. So for example, in my talk, I showed a nursing home by the architect Emmanuelle Moureaux in Tokyo - and in the area where residents visit with their families, Moureaux had hung spheres in many, many different colors. And they're just these colorful balls that almost look like confetti floating in the air. And families stay a lot longer than they used to now that this room has been redesigned where they visit - and then the work that Publicolor is doing in New York City, working with underserved public schools, painting them in vibrant colors. And what they hear from principals is that attendance improves, graffiti basically disappears and that kids actually say they feel safer in the painted buildings.

So again, these effects seem like they're on the surface, but they go much deeper. So if we can put things in our environment that change the way that we behave and the way that we feel, then why not put things in that make us feel good and that bring out our best selves?


LEE: Each moment of joy is small. But over time, they add up to more than the sum of their parts. And so maybe, instead of chasing after happiness, what we should be doing is embracing joy and finding ways to put ourselves in the path of it more often. Deep within us, we all have this impulse to seek out joy in our surroundings, and we have it for a reason. Joy isn't some superfluous extra. It's directly connected to our fundamental instinct for survival. On the most basic level, the drive toward joy is the drive toward life. Thank you.


RAZ: That's Ingrid Fetell Lee. She's the author of "Joyful" and the founder of the blog "The Aesthetics Of Joy." You can check out her entire talk at

What is something that has brought you immense joy - just, like, in recent days or weeks?

LEE: I had a hummingbird come visit my garden.

RAZ: Wow.

LEE: It was amazing. And I didn't realize that I had, by accident, planted one of the flowers that hummingbirds love the most. And this hummingbird came by, and he came by every day for, like, a week. So that's been a very magical moment, to see the hummingbird sort of just hovering there.

RAZ: You are like human Prozac.

LEE: (Laughter) That's the best thing anyone's ever said to me. Thank you for that.

RAZ: On the show today, ideas about finding joy. And sometimes, it's hiding in plain sight in everyday things. But sometimes, it radiates from something so rare and so extraordinary that you kind of deliberately have to seek it out.


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