Ode to joy: how to find happiness in balloons and rainbows

The key to feeling cheerful lies not in our inner wellbeing but in the world around us, says Ingrid Fetell Lee

Your work gives me a feeling of elation ,” one of the professors said. The others nodded. I should have been happy. Nine months before, I had left my career as a brand strategist to seek a graduate degree in an area in which I had no experience: industrial design. Many times over the course of the year I had felt overwhelmed by the new skills I needed to learn, from drawing to colour-mixing to woodworking. But today I had passed the assessment, and I did feel relieved to know that my career shift hadn’t been a giant mistake.

And yet, as I looked at those nodding faces, my heart sank in my chest. I wanted to be a designer because I believed design could solve serious problems. I volunteered with a non-profit organisation designing low-cost reflective backpacks to prevent roadside injury among schoolchildren in Ghana. Late at night, I pored over volumes on renewable materials and environmentally friendly manufacturing strategies. I had hoped the professors would see in my work a commitment to using design to build a safer, fairer, more sustainable world. Instead, they assured joy.

Joy seemed light and fluffy. It was nice, but definitely not serious or substantial. I wondered if that was how they saw me: a nice young decorator who constructed things that constructed people smile. Not things that could change the world.

Still, though I was frustrated, something about the professor’s remark caught my attention. Joy was a feeling: ephemeral and elusive. It wasn’t something we could see or touch. How, then, could the collect of simple objects I had presented- a beaker, a lamp, a stool- elicit pleasure? I tried to get the professors to explain, but they hummed and hawed as they gestured with their hands.” They only do ,” they said. I thanked them, but as I packed up my things for the summer, I couldn’t stop thinking about this question.

How do tangible things generate this intangible feeling of pleasure? At first, the answer seemed unequivocal: they don’t. Sure, there’s a certain pleasure in material things, but I’d always been led to believe that this is superficial and short-lived , not a meaningful source of joy. In all the books on happiness I’d consulted over the years , no one had ever suggested joy might be hiding inside my closet or kitchen cabinet. Instead, countless experts agree that the kind of joy that matters is not around us but in us. This perspective has roots in ancient philosophical traditions. The teachings of Buddha advise that happiness comes only from letting go of our attachments to worldly things. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece offer a similar prescription, rooted in self-denial and rigorous control over one’s supposes. Modern psychology, similarly, espouses this inward lens, indicating the way to a happy life is to change how we look at the world and our place in it. From mantras and meditation to therapy and habit change, true elation is an exercise of mind over matter , not matter over mind.

Yet in the weeks and months that followed my review, I noticed many moments when people seemed to find real elation in the material world. Gazing at a paint in an art museum or making a sandcastle at the beach, people smiled and chuckled, lost in the moment. They smiled, too, at the peachy sun of the sunset and at the shaggy puppy with the yellow galoshes. And is not merely did people seem to find elation in the world around them, but many also put a lot of endeavour into making their immediate surrounding more delightful. They tended rose gardens, put candles on birthday cakes and hung illuminates for the holidays. Why would people do these things if they had no real impact on their happiness?

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‘ An increase in sunlight in a workspace has been linked to better sleep and increased physical activity among office workers ‘. Illustration: Francesco Ciccolella

I needed to know exactly how the physical world influences our feelings and why certain things trigger a feeling of exhilaration. I began asking everyone I knew, as well as quite a few strangers on the street, to tell me about the objects or places they associated with joy. Some things were specific and personal, but many instances I heard over and over again. Everywhere, it seems, rainbows are joyful. So are beach balls and fireworks, swimming pools and treehouses, hot-air balloons and ice-cream sundaes with colourful sprinkles. These pleasures cut across lines of age, gender, and ethnicity. They weren’t joyful for just a few people. They were joyful for nearly everyone.

I met pictures of these things and pinned them up on my studio wall. Each day I expended a few minutes adding new images, sorting them into categories and looking for patterns. Then one day, something clicked. I ensure lollipops, pom-poms and polka dots, and it dawned on me: they were all round in shape. Vibrant quilts kept company with Matisse paintings and rainbow candies: all bursting with saturated colouring. A picture of a cathedral’s rose window puzzled me at first, but when I placed it next to a snowflake and a sunflower, it constructed sense: all had radiating symmetries. And the common thread among bubbles, balloons and hummingbirds also became clear: they were all things that floated gently in the air. Assuring it all laid out, I realised that though the feeling of pleasure is mysterious and ephemeral, we can access it through tangible, physical attributes. Specifically, it is what designers call aesthetics- the properties that define the style an object lookings and feels- that gives rise to the feeling of joy.

Up until this point , I had always thought of aesthetics as decorative, even a bit frivolous. This attitude is common in our culture. Though we pay a fair amount of attention to esthetics, we’re not supposed to care too much about them or put too much effort into appearances. If we do, we risk seeming shallow or insubstantial. Yet when I looked at the aesthetics on my studio wall, I realised they were far more than merely decorative. They elicited a deep, emotional response.

The summer after my review, I began to see the power of this reply firsthand. My grandmother was in the last stages of cancer and, once a week, I took the train out to my mother’s house to visit her. I brought blooms- tulips, snapdragons or sweet peas- whatever appeared freshest at the florist. As I strolled into the room, I’d see her face light up. I’d take the vase and change the water, flinging the dead stems into the bin and mixing the ones that still had life in them with the new buds. I fluffed and separated them, and define them on the table next to the bed. Nana’s gaze floated from me to the flowers and back again as we chatted. Even as she grew most remote, her eyes clouded and hands brittle, she always smiled at blooms. And when at the end of each visit I had to leave to catch my develop home, I would peer back as I was shutting the door to insure her, small and pale in my childhood bed, still gazing at them.

Nana died that summertime and , not long after, I began to hear stories of how what I’d started to refer to as the” aesthetics of pleasure” were being applied on a much larger scale. In Tirana, Albania, in 2000, newly elected mayor Edi Rama decided to cover the buildings at the heart of the city with vibrant swathes of orange, turquoise, red and yellow. Albania was the poorest country in Europe and Tirana, its capital city, was so depressed that as Rama has said:” The only hope in Tirana was to leave it .”

When Rama, an artist and former basketball superstar, took office, he found the city’s treasury empties, depleted by years of citizens refusing to pay their municipal taxes. He utilized money set aside by the EU for historic preservation to fund the painted buildings, utilizing designs he sketched himself. Many residents were outraged to find their stores or apartments painted in gaudy hues without their knowledge or permission. But soon new stores began to open, and the ones that were already there began to take the heavy metal grates off their storefront windows. They claimed the street felt safer, even though there had been no increase in the police force. The number of businesses tripled, and the tax revenues increased by such factors of six. This revenue enabled Rama to refurbish green spaces, plant trees and restore public service. By the end of Rama’s time in office, Tirana had become not just a viable place to live, but an international tourist destination.

How could something as seemingly superficial as colourings have such a profound effect? I discovered a possible answer in a cross-cultural study of colour in workplace environments, which revealed that people working in more colourful offices were more alert, friendly, confident, and joyful than those in drab spaces. Bright colour constructs our surroundings feel alive, which in turn energises us and changes how we engage with others. Perhaps this is why the New York-based non-profit Publicolor, which use vibrant hues to transform neglected schools and community sites, has heard from administrators that student and teacher attendance improves and vandalism declines in its painted schools. Or why Hilary Dalke, a colour specialist who has worked with the NHS, has found that care home residents often ask for the brightest colouring to be painted in their bedrooms.

Over time, I began to find that colour isn’t the only aesthetic of joy that can have a deep influence on our wellbeing. Blooms, for example, have been shown to improve not only mood but also memory in older adults. Researchers have found that being exposed to images of symmetrical, harmonious rooms reduces the likelihood of cheating on a test when compared with looking at images of unbalanced, asymmetrical spaces. Some of these effects have even been traced to specific neurological structures. When neuroscientists show people pictures of angular objects, they find that a part of the brain called the amygdala, associated in part with fear and nervousnes, lights up, yet bides quiet when they look at round versions of the same objects. The pleasure of a balloon, a beach ball, or a curvy Thomas Heatherwick installing is not just a passing pleasure. It reaches deep into our intellects, lightening our mood and setting us at ease.

These findings changed the style I consider joy, from light and insubstantial, to light and very substantial. Ten years after that review, I look back and wonder how I got the impression that joy wasn’t significant, or why I believed that lightness was incompatible with serious impact. I believe it stems in part from a cultural bias in Western society that equates joyfulness with childishness and a lack of sophistication. Joy is something we’re supposed to grow out of. Adults who are exuberant or silly or who wear bright colourings or paint their houses with them aren’t to be taken seriously. This is particularly true for women. We risk seeming frivolous when we buy flowers or invest in fling pillows simply because they bring us joy.

This bias operates deep in our history, and is tinged with ethnic racism. Two hundred years ago Goethe wrote in his Theory of Colours that” barbarian nations, uneducated people, “and childrens” is a huge predilection for vivid colourings ,” but that” people of refinement avoid vivid colourings in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them wholly from their presence .” The built surrounding reinforces this belief. Serious places, such as government houses and corporate headquarters, are dull rectangles furnished in sombre tones of grey and beige. Only playgrounds and primary schools are allowed to be colourful.

The impulse to attempt elation in our surrounds is profoundly human. It evolved over thousands of generations to motivate our ancestors to seek out the things in their surroundings that enhanced their likelihood of survival. We find joy in vibrant colours, round shapes, symmetrical patterns and lush textures because these esthetics indicated to early humen that an environment was nourishing, safe, balanced and abundant. On a fundamental level, the drive towards joy is the drive towards life. Knowing this has allowed me to let go of the judgment I once felt about elation and, instead, recognise that it has an important role to play in a healthy life, and in a healthy society.

The beauty of the aesthetics of pleasure is that we can use tangible means to address intangible problems. A study of prisons has shown that viewing videos of nature scenes can lessen violence by up to 26%. An increased number of sunlight in a workspace has been linked to better sleep and increased physical activity among office workers. A move as simple as changing lightbulbs has been shown to reduce depression and cognitive decline in patients with “Alzheimers disease”. Initiatives that once might have been seen as cosmetic, many of which are low-cost, can have far-reaching repercussions. And research on these types of initiatives is still merely in its early stages.

At the same time, there’s also the more personal side of the aesthetics of exhilaration: the flowers brought to loved ones in hospital, the polka-dotted scarf saved up for and treasured, the yellow doorway painted as a gift to the neighborhood. In my own life, these 10 years of researching the aesthetics of pleasure have made me far more attuned to the exhilaration in my surroundings. Rather that rejecting these moments as inconsequential to my happiness, I’ve come to see the world as a reservoir of positivity that I can turn to, any time.

Joyful : the Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness by Ingrid Fetell Lee is published by Rider on 6 September at PS20. To order it for PS17, go to guardianbookshop.com

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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