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TED2018

Ingrid Fetell Lee: Where joy hides and how to find it

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Cherry blossoms and rainbows, bubbles and googly eyes: Why do some things seem to create such universal joy? In this captivating talk, Ingrid Fetell Lee reveals the surprisingly tangible roots of joy and shows how we all can find -- and create -- more of it in the world around us.

- Designer, writer
Ingrid Fetell Lee studies joy and reveals how we can find more of it in the world around us. Full bio

It's 2008,
00:12
and I'm just finishing
my first year of design school.
00:14
And I'm at my first year-end review,
00:19
which is a form of ritual torture
for design students,
00:21
where they make you take everything
you made over the course of the year
00:28
and lay it out on a table
00:32
and stand next to it
while a bunch of professors,
00:34
most of whom you've never seen before,
00:37
give you their unfiltered opinions of it.
00:40
So it's my turn and I'm standing
next to my table,
00:44
everything neatly lined up,
00:47
and I'm just hoping
that my professors can see
00:50
how much effort I've put
into making my designs practical
00:54
and ergonomic and sustainable.
01:00
And I'm starting to get really nervous,
01:05
because for a long time,
no one says anything.
01:07
It's just completely silent.
01:10
And then one of the professors
starts to speak, and he says,
01:13
"Your work gives me a feeling of joy."
01:15
Joy?
01:19
I wanted to be a designer
because I wanted to solve real problems.
01:21
Joy is nice, I guess,
but it's kind of light --
01:24
not substantial.
01:29
But I was also kind of intrigued,
01:31
because joy is this intangible feeling,
01:33
and how does that come
from the stuff on the table next to me?
01:38
I asked the professors,
01:42
"How do things make us feel joy?
01:43
How do tangible things
make us feel intangible joy?"
01:46
They hemmed and hawed
and gestured a lot with their hands.
01:52
"They just do," they said.
01:57
I packed up my things for the summer,
01:59
but I couldn't stop thinking
about this question ...
02:01
and this launched a journey --
02:06
one that I didn't know at the time
would take me 10 years --
02:07
to understand the relationship
between the physical world
02:10
and the mysterious,
quixotic emotion we call "joy."
02:14
And what I discovered
is that not only are they linked,
02:20
but that the physical world
can be a powerful resource to us
02:24
in creating happier, healthier lives.
02:27
After my review,
02:32
I thought, "I know what joy feels like,
02:33
but what is it, exactly?"
02:36
And I found that even scientists
don't always agree,
02:38
and they sometimes use the words "joy"
and "happiness" and "positivity"
02:42
more or less interchangeably.
02:45
But broadly speaking,
when psychologists use the word joy,
02:48
what they mean is an intense,
momentary experience
02:51
of positive emotion --
02:55
one that makes us smile and laugh
and feel like we want to jump up and down.
02:56
And this is actually a technical thing.
03:01
That feeling of wanting
to jump up and down
03:03
is one of the ways
that scientists measure joy.
03:05
It's different than happiness,
03:09
which measures how good we feel over time.
03:11
Joy is about feeling good in the moment,
03:13
right now.
03:16
And this was interesting to me
03:19
because as a culture, we are obsessed
with the pursuit of happiness,
03:20
and yet in the process,
we kind of overlook joy.
03:24
So this got me thinking:
03:30
Where does joy come from?
03:33
I started asking everyone I knew,
03:36
and even people I just met on the street,
03:38
about the things that brought them joy.
03:41
On the subway, in a café, on an airplane,
03:43
it was, "Hi, nice to meet you.
What brings you joy?"
03:46
I felt like a detective.
03:50
I was like, "When did you last see it?
03:52
Who were you with? What color was it?
03:54
Did anyone else see it?"
03:56
I was the Nancy Drew of joy.
03:58
(Laughter)
04:00
And after a few months of this,
I noticed that there were certain things
04:02
that started to come up again
and again and again.
04:05
They were things like cherry blossoms
04:09
and bubbles ...
04:12
swimming pools and tree houses ...
04:14
hot air balloons and googly eyes --
04:19
(Laughter)
04:23
and ice cream cones,
especially the ones with the sprinkles.
04:24
These things seemed to cut across lines
of age and gender and ethnicity.
04:29
I mean, if you think about it,
04:34
we all stop and turn our heads to the sky
04:36
when the multicolored arc
of a rainbow streaks across it.
04:38
And fireworks --
04:41
we don't even need to know
what they're for,
04:43
and we feel like we're celebrating, too.
04:45
These things aren't joyful
for just a few people;
04:50
they're joyful for nearly everyone.
04:53
They're universally joyful.
04:56
And seeing them all together,
05:00
it gave me this indescribably
hopeful feeling.
05:02
The sharply divided,
politically polarized world we live in
05:08
sometimes has the effect
of making our differences feel so vast
05:11
as to be insurmountable.
05:16
And yet underneath it all,
05:18
there's a part of each of us
that finds joy in the same things.
05:19
And though we're often told
that these are just passing pleasures,
05:24
in fact, they're really important,
05:28
because they remind us
of the shared humanity we find
05:30
in our common experience
of the physical world.
05:34
But I still needed to know:
05:38
What is it about these things
that makes them so joyful?
05:39
I had pictures of them
up on my studio wall,
05:45
and every day, I would come in
and try to make sense of it.
05:48
And then one day, something just clicked.
05:52
I saw all these patterns:
05:56
round things ...
05:59
pops of bright color ...
06:01
symmetrical shapes ...
06:05
a sense of abundance and multiplicity ...
06:08
a feeling of lightness or elevation.
06:12
When I saw it this way,
06:17
I realized that though the feeling of joy
is mysterious and elusive,
06:18
we can access it through tangible,
physical attributes,
06:22
or what designers call aesthetics,
06:25
a word that comes from the same root
as the Greek word "aísthomai,"
06:28
which means, "I feel,"
"I sense," "I perceive."
06:32
And since these patterns were telling me
that joy begins with the senses,
06:37
I began calling them "Aesthetics of Joy";
06:42
the sensations of joy.
06:45
And in the wake of this discovery,
06:48
I noticed something
that as I walked around,
06:50
I began spotting little moments
of joy everywhere I went --
06:52
a vintage yellow car
06:57
or a clever piece of street art.
06:58
It was like I had a pair
of rose-colored glasses,
07:00
and now that I knew what to look for,
07:05
I was seeing it everywhere.
07:08
It was like these little moments of joy
were hidden in plain sight.
07:09
And at the same time,
07:14
I had another realization,
07:16
that if these are the things
that bring us joy,
07:17
then why does so much
of the world look like this?
07:20
(Laughter)
07:23
Why do we go to work here?
07:25
Why do we send our kids to schools
that look like this?
07:27
Why do our cities look like this?
07:31
And this is most acute for the places
that house the people
07:34
that are most vulnerable among us:
07:39
nursing homes,
07:41
hospitals,
07:43
homeless shelters,
07:45
housing projects.
07:47
How did we end up in a world
that looks like this?
07:49
We all start out joyful,
07:54
but as we get older,
07:57
being colorful or exuberant
opens us up to judgment.
08:00
Adults who exhibit genuine joy
are often dismissed as childish
08:05
or too feminine
08:11
or unserious
08:13
or self-indulgent,
08:15
and so we hold ourselves back from joy,
08:18
and we end up in a world
that looks like this.
08:21
But if the aesthetics of joy can be used
08:25
to help us find more joy
in the world around us,
08:27
then couldn't they also be used
to create more joy?
08:30
I spent that last two years
scouring the planet,
08:33
looking for different ways
that people have answered this question.
08:35
And this led me to the work
of the artist Arakawa
08:40
and the poet Madeline Gins,
08:43
who believed that these kinds
of environments are literally killing us.
08:45
And so they set out the create
an apartment building
08:50
that they believed would reverse aging.
08:54
And this is it.
08:58
(Laughter)
09:00
(Applause)
09:03
It's a real place, just outside Tokyo.
09:06
I spent a night there, and it's a lot.
09:09
(Laughter)
09:13
The floors undulate,
09:16
so you don't end up walking around
09:17
so much as kind of bouncing
around the apartment,
09:20
and there are bright colors
in every direction.
09:22
I'm not sure I left any younger,
09:28
but it's as if, by trying
to create an apartment
09:30
that would make us feel youthful,
09:34
they ended up creating
one that was joyful.
09:36
And yes, this is a bit much
for everyday life,
09:41
but it made me wonder:
What about the rest of us?
09:43
How do we bring these ideas
back into the real world?
09:47
So I started finding people
who were doing just that.
09:52
For example, this hospital, designed
by the Danish artist Poul Gernes.
09:55
Or these schools,
10:00
transformed by the non-profit Publicolor.
10:02
What's interesting is that Publicolor
has heard from school administrators
10:05
who say that attendance improves,
10:08
graffiti disappears
10:11
and kids actually say they feel safer
in these painted schools.
10:13
And this aligns with research
conducted in four countries,
10:18
which shows that people
working in more colorful offices
10:21
are actually more alert,
10:24
more confident
10:26
and friendlier than those
working in drab spaces.
10:27
Why would this be the case?
10:32
Well, as I started to trace back
our love of color,
10:34
I found that some researchers
see a connection to our evolution.
10:38
Color, in a very primal way,
is a sign of life, a sign of energy.
10:43
And the same is true of abundance.
10:49
We evolved in a world
where scarcity is dangerous,
10:51
and abundance meant survival.
10:54
So, one confetto --
10:58
which happens to be
the singular of confetti,
11:01
in case you were wondering --
11:03
(Laughter)
11:05
isn't very joyful,
11:06
but multiply it,
11:08
and you have a handful
of one of the most joyful substances
11:09
on the planet.
11:12
The architect Emmanuelle Moureaux
uses this idea in her work a lot.
11:14
This is a nursing home she designed,
11:18
where she uses these multicolored spheres
to create a feeling of abundance.
11:20
And what about all those
round things I noticed?
11:25
Well, it turns out neuroscientists
have studied this, too.
11:29
They put people into fMRI machines,
11:32
and they showed them pictures
of angular objects and round ones.
11:34
And what they found is that the amygdala,
11:40
a part of the brain associated
in part with fear and anxiety,
11:42
lit up when people
looked at angular objects,
11:46
but not when they looked
at the round ones.
11:48
They speculate that because
angles in nature
11:51
are often associated with objects
that might be dangerous to us,
11:54
that we evolved an unconscious
sense of caution around these shapes,
11:58
whereas curves set us at ease.
12:03
You can see this in action
in the new Sandy Hook Elementary School.
12:06
After the mass shooting there in 2012,
12:11
the architects Svigals + Partners
12:13
knew that they needed to create
a building that was secure,
12:15
but they wanted to create
one that was joyful,
12:18
and so they filled it with curves.
12:20
There are waves running
along the side of the building,
12:22
and these squiggly canopies
over the entryway,
12:25
and the whole building bends
toward the entrance
12:28
in a welcoming gesture.
12:31
Each moment of joy is small,
12:35
but over time, they add up to more
than the sum of their parts.
12:38
And so maybe instead
of chasing after happiness,
12:44
what we should be doing is embracing joy
12:47
and finding ways to put ourselves
in the path of it more often.
12:51
Deep within us,
12:57
we all have this impulse
to seek out joy in our surroundings.
12:58
And we have it for a reason.
13:04
Joy isn't some superfluous extra.
13:07
It's directly connected to our fundamental
instinct for survival.
13:11
On the most basic level,
13:17
the drive toward joy
is the drive toward life.
13:20
Thank you.
13:25
(Applause)
13:26
Thank you.
13:28
Thank you,
13:29
thank you.
13:31
(Applause)
13:32

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About the speaker:

Ingrid Fetell Lee - Designer, writer
Ingrid Fetell Lee studies joy and reveals how we can find more of it in the world around us.

Why you should listen

Ingrid Fetell Lee has devoted ten years to answering the question: "How do tangible things create intangible joy?" Drawing on research from the fields of neuroscience and psychology, her book, Joyful, and her blog "The Aesthetics of Joy" explore the powerful connection between our surroundings and our emotions, and empower people to find more joy in daily life through design. 

Lee has more than twelve years of experience in design and branding, most recently as design director at global innovation firm IDEO. She has been featured as an expert on design and joy by outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, PRI's Studio 360, CBC's Spark and Fast Company. 

Lee holds a Master's in industrial design from Pratt Institute and a Bachelor's in English and creative writing from Princeton University, and she was a founding faculty member in the Products of Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Joyful, her first book, will be published in North America by Little, Brown on September 4th.

More profile about the speaker
Ingrid Fetell Lee | Speaker | TED.com