This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.
I’m not generally known as a happy person. I don’t think that’s because I’m unhappy, exactly, or because I’m a cynic or a naysayer, even though I have my moments. No, I think it’s because I’m allergic to the idea of happiness as anything but a shorthand for some vague and abstract notion of contentment. Being happy is great, but it’s also amorphous and lava-lampy. If you ask me whether I’m hungry, I’ve got a reliable heuristic for answering. If you ask me whether I’m happy, I’m most likely to think, What would it even mean to be happy?
The designer Ingrid Fetell Lee gave me a new tool to help me clarify those thoughts. “Happiness,” she explained yesterday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, “is a broad evaluation of how we feel about our lives over time.” That makes macroscopic evaluations of happiness difficult if not oppressive. How do you feel about your work, your family life, your health, and all the rest? Thinking about it is too much to bear, which only makes you feel less content.
To arrive at happiness, Lee suggests pursuing it from the bottom up, by finding (or creating) moments of joy. Unlike happiness, joy is momentary and small-scale: It comes from an intense, momentary feeling of positive emotion. In Lee’s view, that makes joy measurable, at least qualitatively. Something that makes you smile, or laugh, for example, like watching a dog play or feeling the texture of sand pass through your fingers. Joy is tiny but visceral, Lee said, the “little moments that make us feel more alive.” Over time, those small moments are what lead to happiness.
Joy often comes from encounters with people—pouring pancake batter with a young child, or feeling a lover’s fingertips skim your back as you enter a door. But as a designer focused mostly on the built environment, Lee started talking to people about the things that bring joy. To her surprise, some of the same examples came up again and again, no matter the gender, ethnicity, or age of her subjects: tree houses and hot-air balloons, rainbows and sprinkles, swimming pools and soap bubbles. She set out to understand the aesthetic motifs that those specimens of pleasure shared, and to develop them into design patterns that could be deployed in the world. Round things tend to bring joy more than angular ones, for example. Pops of color tend to elicit delight, as do symmetry and objects in multiple.
“If these are the things that bring us joy,” Lee asked, “then why are they missing from our world?” Offices are gray or beige. Schools look similarly dour, not to mention nursing homes and housing projects. Lee believes that adding design elements that seem to produce moments of joy—like color and pattern—can make people more productive and hopeful. At the Shinjuen nursing home in Japan, for example, the architect Emmanuelle Moureaux installed a colorful, bubbled mobile evocative of “green grass and soap bubbles floating in the park on sunny days,” just the kind of worldly things Lee says are almost universally joyful.
It’s hard not to feel good about the idea, especially since there’s some evidence that it works. For example, Lee pointed out that “people believe that their lost wallet will be returned to them more while standing in a rainbow crosswalk than a normal one,” underscoring the kinds of interventions she pursues in her design practice.
But I’m not sure I want to live in a world where color blocks and bubbles get slathered upon every surface. I like an occasional rainbow as much as anyone (really!), yet a city where one adorns every crosswalk sounds more cloying than joyful to me. When I raised that objection, Lee pointed out that the built environment has a long way to go before that’s a problem. “I don’t think we’re in any danger of having too many joyful spaces,” she told me. She also said that people tend to fear they will get tired of bold colors, but actually they’re much more likely to grow weary of drab ones.
As someone who wrote a book about applying play to ordinary life, I strongly empathize with Lee’s appeal to mundane objects and spaces, rather than remarkable events and encounters, as a site for intervention. Even so, I still worry that adornment can only go so far. The joy that one gets from helping a young child write her name, or the joy of timing an automobile’s gear shift to maximize acceleration out of a curve, has nothing to do with how those things look. It comes from operating or experiencing something in a new way, or in a familiar way again. That’s the sensation that I call fun.
When I asked Lee about it, she agreed that function can be just as important to joy as appearance. She told me that she’s focused on the built environment, where surface interventions are more common, because “that’s where the biggest gap is, and it does have a profound influence.” I still worry about the obsession with visual appearances—and Lee admits that examples like rainbow-painted crosswalks play better with her audiences, who grok the idea of joy immediately when they see a picture.
At least seeking out or designing for joy offers an alternative from seeking out “happiness” as an abstract, holistic pursuit. We live life over time, but perhaps we are happy only in retrospect, as we reflect upon the effect of all the encounters we’ve had. That makes the little moments more important than the big ones, because they are happening all around us, all the time.